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Tanzania, Surf to Summit

As winter promised to turn to spring, Jodi and I had our usual "where shall we go this year?" discussions. We wanted to do something a bit outside of our usual comfort zone. One idea was to head to eastern Europe, perhaps Romania. another was to go to Africa. I remembered coming across a travelogue of someone who had traveled in Africa with an organization called Bicycle Africa, so I went googling and came across the website; http://www.ibike.org/bikeafrica/. We went back and forth for a while about just which trip we might like to do. We considered Kenya, and even had some email conversations with the director of Bicycle Africa, David Mozer, before finally deciding we wanted to go to Tanzania. In Tanzania not only would we get to bicycle tour, but we would also have the chance to try to climb to the roof of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro.

David hires local guides to lead the trips for Bicycle Africa. In our case, we were in the competent hands of Jerome and Emanuel (http://jbbikeco.blogspot.com/), both of whom live in Lushoto, in the Usambara Mountains of northeastern Tanzania. When they are not leading groups for Bicycle Africa (which offers but two trips per year), they lead hiking and biking trips on their own, so they are well versed in the required skills.

Friday, 28 July 2006 - Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam - 5:30 AM

  • Smokers in the airport. We don't see that at home anymore. There's virtually no place where it's acceptable to smoke in public at home anymore.

  • Gay porn for sale at the news agent. Don't bring that to East Africa!

  • People of all complexions and wearing all different kinds of clothing.

  • Why are all the signs in English?

  • People-watching as planes arrive from different points of the compass.

  • An Indian businessman wearing a white shirt, pink tie, conservative grey suit, and white New Balance court shoes.

  • A platinum blond with huge boobs and stiletto heels. At 6:30 in the morning!

  • An African woman carrying her toddler. She has a piece of cloth wrapped around her ample bosom, then behind her where the young boy sits nestled in the folds of the cloth and bouncing rhythmically against her equally ample rear end with each step she takes.

  • A "Heidi" - young woman in sandals and pig-tails with a fresh-scrubbed freckled face.

  • A white-bearded Sikh with a purple-red turban wrapped round his head.

  • It's a kaleidoscope of people - some smiling, some hurrying, some weary. It's an interesting world and I'm glad I get to see a little piece of it.

Tuesday, 1 August, 2006 - Safari Inn courtyard, Dar es Salaam

We left Zanzibar this morning, and I haven't written a word about it yet. It's an amazing place. Warm, friendly faces yelling "Jambo! Jambo!" as we ride by. Historic old buildings slowly decaying away under the burden of daily use and no maintenance. Bustling, chaotic markets where live chickens in baskets quickly turn into dressed chickens in plastic bowls and covered with flies. In the evening we went to the Sunset Bar at the Africa House Hotel. The hotel was originally built as the men's club for the British when they ruled Zanzibar. We sat out on the terrace overlooking the water, relaxing in leather club chairs, drinking Kilimanjaro and Safari and Tusker beer at 2,000 Tsh per (less than $2).

After a couple hours of this we walked down to Forodhani Gardens where the vendors set up their grills every night and grill your choice of seafood, beef, or chicken.

One afternoon Gina, Jodi, and I took a short leg-stretcher of a bike ride and wandered down a side road toward the beach. At the top of the hill overlooking the beach was a collection of opulent houses behind high white-washed walls. At the bottom of the hill, right on the water, was a dirt track lined with pole and thatch houses with a few cinder-block buildings mixed in. The people's wooden fishing boats were pulled up onto the beach. People were walking, bicycling, and standing along the road. I felt perhaps we were intruding, but again we were greeted with smiles and warm Jambo's, so we continued until the road dead-ended.

This morning we got up early to catch the 7:00 AM ferry to Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar and Dar are in the same country of course, but it's not a tight union. Zanzibar maintains much of it's independence, including insisting on its own passport control when you enter or exit.

Some in our group took the ferry from Dar to Zanzibar last week, and told us horror stories of rough seas and a cabin that reeked of vomit. We took the first ferry of the day so the cabin was clean, and apparently the seas were not so rough. Still, 4 or 5 people didn't manage to hold onto their breakfast.

Dar is bustling like Nairobi was, but much friendlier. The street life here will spoil you for any city in the U.S. New York is a sleepy snooze of a town compared to Dar. Power must be intermittent here because every open business seems to have a generator running out on the sidewalk. You can imagine the cacophony.

Right now we are sitting with our gear waiting for Jerome, our guide, to hire us a private bus to bring us and our bikes out of Dar and up into the mountains. While we do that Emmanuelle, the assistant guide, will take all our climbing gear to Moshi.

Friday, 4 August 2006 - Mtae, Tanzania

Jerome hired a bus in Dar to take us to Korogwe, where we stayed in the transit hotel. On Wednesday morning we took a mini-bus from Korogwe to Mombo, then started cycling up into the Usambara Mountains. It was stunningly beautiful country, though a relentless climb. We stopped in the village of Soni for lunch, then descended and climbed again until we reached Lushoto in late afternoon. Thursday was sent off the bikes. Emmanuelle led us on a walk out to a viewpoint where we could see the plain far below us. we walked on narrow tracks out through the bush and past homes and fields. We passed through sugar cane fields and came upon 5 women pressing sugar cane to be made into fermented sugar cane juice.

This morning we left Lushoto and headed further north into the mountains. The road got narrower and rougher until we left all motor vehicles behind. We traveled through small rural villages where our arrival was usually heralded by a call of "Jambo mzungu!" The cry would be picked up by all the kids in the village and we would hear young, excited voices yelling "Mzungu! Mzungu!", and see kids running from every direction to call and wave to us.

As if being famous just for showing up wasn't enough, the scenery was stunningly beautiful. It was a physically tough day, with lots of climbing and descending and plenty of loose surfaces to negotiate. I have heard or read the phrase "the red dust of Africa" before, and now I understand it right down to the core. Every nook and cranny of both our bikes and ourselves was coated with the fine red dust of Africa. We finally arrived in Mtae about an hour before sunset. The village has electricity but many of the houses and businesses aren't electrified. We had the best dinner of the trip so far at a little restaurant lit by oil lamps.

Tomorrow we descend out of the mountains and down onto the Masai Plains. If it's clear in the morning we might be able to see Kilimanjaro from here before we leave.


Sunday, 6 August 2006 - Same, Tanzania

Yesterday morning we left Mtae and descended steeply (!) down to the plain. The descent was tough. Not being accomplished mountain bike riders, we had to learn on the job while carrying panniers and three liters of water apiece.

The landscape changed dramatically as we reached the plain. The road is loose sand, making for tough cycling. There are also large thorns here, resulting in multiple flat tires. Jodi and I had three between us, as did some of the others. We passed a couple of small Masai villages, one or two fields planted in cotton, some corn fields, and some scattered houses. Eventually we arrived in a small village where we hired a local guide to lead us on his bicycle along bush paths towards a lake. As we reached the lake the landscape changed again and we passed lush green irrigated rice paddies. Finally, we pressed on until we reached the small village of Ndungu where we spent the night in a local guest house. For dinner this night Jerome when to the market to buy chicken to cook along with our usual rice and cabbage. When he came back to the guest house he had two live chickens with him, and he proceeded to slit their throats, pluck and dress them, and cook them up for our dinner.

Today (Sunday) we pedaled from Ndungu to Same by way of Kiswani where we stopped for lunch. We skirted a game reserve, and were cautioned by our guide (half jokingly) to stay together because of the remote possibility of lions.

Just before Kiswani, Jodi and I had gotten ahead of the others and pulled up just opposite a small Masai village to wait for the others. Four Masai women in colorful clothing came out to greet us. An older woman said something to Jodi and, with a big smile, offered her hand to shake. After we shook hands all around, we had a short conversation in which we understood nothing they said, and I don't think they understood our few words of Swahili. We settled for smiling at each other until Jodi and I waved good-bye and continued on our way.

We are in Same now. Same is the provincial capital, and a large town. We hoped to get internet access here, but the power was off today (Tanzania has a power shortage due to the drought) and while the power came on at 7:00 PM, the internet cafe isn't open on Sunday evening. The guest house here is fairly comfortable, middle of the road for the accommodations we've had on the trip. The bed linens are clean and bright. The squat toilet has a tank and flushes with a pull of the cord. We also have our own shower. In some guesthouses there is only one shower and one toilet (choo), and you flush the choo by dipping water out of a bucket and pouring it into the toilet. None of the places we have stayed have hot showers, but with the exception of the guest house in Ndungu, if you ask you will be given a bucket of heated water to wash with.

We buy bottled drinking water every day. A 1.5 liter bottle costs 500 - 600 Tsh. A 500 ml bottle of beer costs around 900 - 1,000 Tsh. A 350 ml bottle of Coca-Cola costs 250 - 300 Tsh. An average meal is 2,500 - 4,000 Tsh. I changed money at 1,276 Tsh to 1 USD, so that bottle of beer is somewhere around 75 cents, and a bottle of water is about 40 cents. Cheap enough to make filtering water not worth the effort. We buy between 4 and 6 bottles per day.

The cuisine is rather monotonous. For breakfast we have chai with fried eggs and either white bread or chapatis. Lunch we get on the road, and might be rolls and jam, or maybe rice and beans bought in a village restaurant. Dinner is more chai, and rice with either beef, chicken, or fish, accompanied by cooked cabbage and perhaps some chips (fries). There is usually also some bananas and perhaps some halved oranges.

Thursday, 10 August 2006 - Horombo Hut, 12,340' up Mount Kilimanjaro

Let's back up. On Sunday we arrived in Same. Same was the end of our riding on unpaved roads. While waiting for the guest house to heat water so we could bathe, Jodi and I sat outside on the steps in front. Some local kids were playing catch with a home-made ball, and Jodi joined them. Before she was done Jodi had made fast friends with them. They even came by later and asked for Jodi by name.

After 3 days of unpaved roads and bush paths, we left Same on the main road to Moshi. This is the same road we left when we turned north-east at Mombo and headed up into the Usambara Mountains on the road to Lushoto. We had a good tailwind and it was really fun making good time on a paved road after slogging through sand and rocks for three days. We rode to Mwanga on Monday, then on to Moshi on Tuesday. The riding was fun and the scenery was nice, but there really weren't any new events worth mentioning.

The hotel in Moshi - the Kenyatta Court Hotel - is the most luxurious place we've stayed in since arriving in Africa. We had a great lunch in the restaurant, then we met our outfitter for the Kili climb in the evening.

On Wednesday morning we were picked up for the drive out to Marangu to start our hike. We were delayed at the park gate for a few hours as our head guide, MSafiri, worked to straighten out a problem with the paperwork required by the park, but we finally were on our way around 2:30. We made it to Mandara Hut just before dark at 6:30. The hike up through the rain forest was very cool.

Today we left Mandara and hiked up to Horombo. At 12,340' this is a couple thousand feet higher than I have ever been before. We both feel fine so far, though the Diamox we're taking to help deal with the altitude (it makes you breathe faster) is a diuretic so everyone is getting up multiple times every night to pee. Kibo peak was hidden by clouds all day, but when while were here at Horombo the cloud cover blew off and we got our fist glimpse of the peak.

Friday, 11 August 2006 - Kibo Hut, 15,520' up Mount Kilimanjaro

I can't believe we are this high up! I've never been anywhere near this altitude.

It was a beautiful hike up. I kept waiting to fell the first symptoms of altitude sickness, but so far, so good (knock wood).

During the last pitch up to the hut I could definitely feel the altitude if I took anything more than baby steps, but even the porters were going slowly by then.

We've had our tea and snacks, and we'll have an early dinner around 5:00. After that we'll try to get some sleep until they wake us up before midnight to start our final climb up to the crater rim.

Monday, 14 August 2006 - Tarangire Wildlife Lodge, Tarangire National Park

We were woken up at 11:30 PM on Friday night, and served tea and biscuits. Jodi woke up with a case of altitude sickness - nausea, headache, double vision, and ringing in her ears. She tried to get up and drink her tea, but it was impossible. There was no way she could try to make the final climb up the last 4,000' to the summit, and she stayed in her sleeping bag until morning when one of the porters accompanied her down to Horombo Hut.

Meanwhile, the rest of us set out at midnight for the steep ascent of the cone of Kilimanjaro. The moon was just past full so we made the entire climb by moonlight without using our headlamps. It was a six hour slog up to the rim at Gilman's Point, and we arrived just as the sun started to tinge the eastern sky pink. I was moving very slowly and painfully on the climb and one of our guides, James, took my backpack from me and kept me right behind him so he could keep checking on me. I felt I should protest when he took my pack, but didn't have it in me to do so. Truth be told, I doubt I would have made it if he hadn't.

Once we reached Gilman's Point Scott and Gina decided to descend, and Gina, Hakira, and myself continued around the crater rim to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. For all you monkeywrenchers out there, the flag did make it to the summit and I have photographic proof of that fact.

By 10:30 we were back at Kibo Hit and were allowed to sleep for an hour before having brunch and making the walk down to Horombo Hut where I found Jodi feeling much better, though still not 100%. On Sunday we walked the remaining 13 miles down to the park gate.

Today we left Moshi, drove through Arusha and on to Tarangire National Park. It's amazingly beautiful here, and I still can't believe all the animals we've seen. Picture this: It's a it more than an hour before sunset - the sun is at a lowering angle and turns the grass golden. The landscape is dotted with fat-trunked baobab trees. To our right, a pair of impalas are grazing. To our left are dozens and dozens of zebras and wildebeests. In the distance, just far enough away that details disappear and their shapes are silhouetted against the horizon, a dozen or so elephants graze. Does life get better than this?

Today we saw giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, elephants, dik-dik, impala, waterbuck, lions, and ostrich. How amazing is that?!

Breakfast is at 7:00 tomorrow. At 8:00, we're off to Serengeti!

Thursday, 17 August 2006 - Serengeti Sopa Lodge

On the way from Tarangire to Serengeti on Tuesday, we went through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and stopped off at Olduvai Gorge, the site where the Leakeys made their amazing discoveries. Our driver/guide offered to stop at a Masai 'village' where, for $50, we could take all the pictures we wanted. Having already met some Masai where they actually live, and having interacted with them however briefly, we decided to skip this 'experience'.

Most people here, excepting the children, do not like to have their picture taken. We have very few pictures of people as we are not willing to be rude visitors just to get a picture.

Anyway, we've spent the last two days here in Serengeti. It is the dry season now and the vast herds of millions of wildebeests have migrated north into Kenya. Still, the number of animals that remain is amazing. There are elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, zebra, some wildebeests, hippos, monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, buffalo, half a dozen different kinds of antelope, ostriches, porcupines, lizards, and a multitude of birds that I an helpless to identify.

This morning we'll spend a little more time here in Serengeti, then drive to tonight's lodging on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. Tomorrow we'll go down into the crater before being driven to the Kilimanjaro Airport tomorrow evening for our flight home.

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 - Quincy, Massachusetts

As is typically the case, once we arrived home life became very hectic for a while. It's taken me until now to finish up my journal.

As amazing as all the wildlife is, after four days we had just about all the riding around in a vehicle that we could stand. Still, our last morning, which we spent exploring the Ngorongoro Crater, was well worth it. Ngorongoro is an amazing place. Once you get down into the crater you are met with views of the mist rising from the soda lake, with herds of zebra and wildebeests grazing calmly next to the Masai's herds of cattle, all watched over by Masai herdsmen in their traditional, colorful dress.

After eating our lunch at one of the picnic spots in the crater - in the truck to keep our food away from the monkeys - we drove up and out of the crater and started making our way back through the hustle and bustle of Arusha and on to Kilimanjaro Airport. We got to the airport a few minutes before 6:00 PM, and a bit later, just after 6:00, another truck from our outfitter for the safari, MEM Tours (http://www.memtours.com), arrived with our bicycles and other gear that had been stored in their office while we were on our safari.

We had quite a time checking in at the airport. They didn't like our bicycles at all, and insisted that we were required to have them in boxes, and demanded to know what had happened to the boxes they were in when we flew into Tanzania. I told them that we had flown into Zanzibar, not Kilimanjaro, that we had no way to carry huge bicycle boxes with us as we traveled, and that in any case the boxes had been destroyed during the four flights we took to get from Boston to Zanzibar. I then said that if they had bicycle boxes we would be happy to put our bicycles in them, but that otherwise we had no way to get bicycle boxes.

After a long consultation we were told that they did have bicycle boxes, and we would be required to purchase two and box our bikes. I was happy with that, and readily agreed. Then we were told that the boxes were 20 Euro apiece. Fine. I asked if we could pay in US dollars, as we did not have any Euro with us (Many things in Tanzania cannot be paid with Tanzanian shillings. Go figure.) Somehow the exchange rate ended up costing me $35 per bicycle box, for a total of $70, for which I never did get a receipt. Do you suppose somebody mad a tidy little profit for themselves that evening?

Even after paying the $70, we waited another half hour or so for the boxes to materialize. They had obviously been in storage somewhere for a long time, but with the help of another airline official we managed to assemble them into boxes and get our bicycles stashed safely inside.

Our flight was late, but we finally boarded and took off for the 45-minute flight to Dar. After spending an hour on the ground in Dar to board more passengers (we were not allowed off the plane), we took off again headed north to Amsterdam. It was a long flight in tiny, cramped, economy class seats, but I managed to sleep for an hour or two. We arrived in Amsterdam a bit after 7:00 AM, and had to wait until 3:15 for our flight from Amsterdam to Boston. After another 8 hours of flying we were on the ground back in Boston. Home at last, but very much missing Africa. It is a fascinating place. I think we will be back someday.

Thinking Back

It's funny how the things that are in the front of my mind at the time, and thus the things that get written down, aren't necessarily the things that I remember as time goes by. Some of the mental vignettes I keep in my head aren't the things that showed up here in my journal.

- On our flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi I happened to look at the real-time map displayed on the seat-back video monitor, and noticed that we were flying over Darfur. I got up and walked over to the emergency exit where I could look out the window. All I saw below us was endless red earth stretching from horizon to horizon. Not a tree or a blue hint of water to be seen. It mad me wonder what people were fighting over down there. Then I thought that is always the way, the less there is the more people are prone to fight over it.

- I remember stepping out the front door of our hotel in Nairobi in the morning while we were waiting for our ride back to the airport. The street was teeming with people, all walking quietly to wherever they were going. I was standing with the open front door of the hotel at my back, and still it was at best an uneasy feeling to be there. Maybe it was because everything African was so new to me. Maybe it's because of all the warnings I had read and heard about Nairobi. But I stood there for only a couple of moments before retreating back inside the hotel lobby.

- After we had landed at the Zanzibar Airport and assembled our bicycles under the interested watch of a group of cabbies outside the airport terminal, I had a somewhat long and convoluted conversation with one of the cabbies where he finally got around to asking if he could have the crushed and torn cardboard boxes our bikes had flown in. I wondered what he could possibly want these boxes for, but once I had seen just how poor many of the people here were, I understood that nothing went to waste here.

- While on the Spice Tour on Zanzibar we saw a roadside lumber mill. A log had been hoisted up onto a wooden frame above the ground, and two men were sawing planks out of the log, one standing above and one below, using a two-man hand saw.

- The day we rode out of Lushoto and made our way through the mountains towards Mtae, as we approached each little village the children's voices could be heard calling "Mzungu! Mzungu!". The kids would come running just to look and wave at us as we passed by. Somehow we had become celebrities just for showing up. It was very humbling to think of alal the possible reactions we could have received from the locals, yet they chose to be friendly and welcoming.

- The next day, after descending down to the plain, Jodi and I were privileged to meet 4 Masai women on the road. Very few women seem to ride bicycles in Tanzania, and I think the women wanted to shake Jodi's hand. Being her companion I got to join in the exchange of greetings, but I'm quite sure it was Jodi they were most interested in.

- We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in some little village - I don't even remember the name. After we eat Gina tries to ask the proprietress where the toilet is. The word for toilet is "choo". So she asks the woman if she has a choo. The woman looks at her quizzically, not understanding, so Gina repeats:

A Choo!

A Choo!

Being gifted with the sensibilities of a 12-year-old, I think this is hysterically funny and spend the next 5 minutes in uncontrollable laughter, accompanied by Ruth who apparently shares my sense of humor. For the rest of the trip, I can make Ruth laugh on demand simply by saying to her "A Choo!".

Copyright 1996 - 2011 Allen F. Freeman
Last modified: November 03, 2011