29 – 21st December 2005 – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Distance Cycled : 22,472km

It’s been a tough few weeks but at last Christmas is almost here and we’re looking forward to a couple of weeks of lazing on the beach.  Here’s a shorter-than-usual update just to keep you informed over Christmas – so grab another mince pie and read on…

We got our views of Kilimanjaro in the end, the cloud very considerately lifting for a whole morning as we enjoyed a gentle downhill all the way from Arusha to Moshi.  After the plethora of hasslers and touts in downtown Arusha and the maniacal coach drivers on the main road, it was a pleasant surprise to arrive in Moshi.  Low-key, friendly and with a pavement-market bursting with mangoes, oranges and avocados, it was more our kind of place.  Of course Moshi is not exactly off-the-beaten track as most of the 15,000 people who attempt Kili every year use the town as a base or at least spend a night here psyching themselves up for or recuperating from the climb!  Wikipedia tells us that Kilimanjaro is the highest point in the world to be covered by a GSM mobile phone network… and we did speak to a couple of Australians who said their porters and guides were constantly on the phone giving ETAs and ordering up chicken and chips from the base camp cooks, no doubt.  It all seems to detract rather from the appeal of getting out into “the great outdoors”, and venturing into a remote environment.  We were really lucky to have so much solitude and freedom on Mount Kenya, we now realise, and in a way are quite glad we can’t afford the thousand dollars it costs to climb this highest of African peaks.  Nonetheless, a bit of cooling spindrift and a high-altitude breeze would have been welcome as we toiled along the highway the day after leaving Moshi – it was suddenly so hot!  The “short rains” which usually fall in November and December have failed to materialise this year and the land is parched.  The vegetation, grey-brown and dusty, rattled and clattered when the wind blew, as we passed riverbeds that looked like they had never held water.  The only living things that looked to be doing alright were the baobab trees – their bulbous, copper and purple trunks the ideal strategy for times of drought.

The snows of Kilimanjaro receded once again, but there was no shortage of impressive mountain scenery as a long line of rugged rock towered on our left.  Thankfully the road stayed where it was – at the base of the cliffs – so we got to make good speed along the flat tarmac.  This is definitely our favourite kind of cycling – minimum effort and maximum scenic rewards!  This range is known as the Pare Mountains, not formed as a result of Rift Valley earth movements but earlier geological activity in East Africa, which gave rise to the “Eastern Arc” – a chain of mountains stretching in a (not unbroken) line through present-day Tanzania.  The road arrowed over the dry landscape, but there was enough of interest to keep us from dropping off in the saddle though more often than not it was the coaches speeding by rather than the scenery that kept us alert!  The drivers are totally insane (do we say this in every update we write?) and seem to have little regard for the safety of any other road users, never mind the passengers.  I suppose at least those on board are packed in like sardines and so they don’t get jolted around too much….  Locals on bikes scatter like frightened guinea fowl at the first sign of these coaches of doom, veering off onto verges strewn with acacia thorns and broken glass – the latter presumably there as a result of the crashes that unsurprisingly result from such reckless driving.

Eastern Arc mountainsAfter a particularly nerve-wracking morning of verge-veering, we arrived in the small town of Mwanga, where a plethora of shops and vendors were selling fizzy drinks and guess-what-part-of-the-animal kebabs.  As with most small Tanzanian towns, every other shop was painted in eye-wateringly bright red and yellow paint.  There’s big competition between the mobile phone providers here in East Africa, and Celtel is one company that seems to have embarked on a high visibility advertising campaign…who knows what their annual spending on pots of scarlet red and sunshine yellow must be…  Having had their shopfront nicely painted by the man from Celtel, store owners seem to have no problem stocking top-up cards for the main rivals – Vodacom! We’ve noticed this kind of thing a lot – Coca-Cola fridges packed with bottles of Pepsi are everywhere, for instance.  And signs often say things like “experts in all forms of food”, “experienced in clothing for men, women, children and others” (what others??) and you’d think the web was more widespread than in the West if you believed all the “internet browsing available” signs around town.  More than once we’ve been laughed out of a chemist or a tractor repair shop where the owner just thought they’d spice up their sign a bit by advertising cold drinks or email services or anything else that might appeal.  And it’s not as if they lure you in and to give you the hard sell, nor do you find yourself walking out with a spare fan belt for a Massey Ferguson or a bagful of paracetamol, thinking “now how did that happen?”  No, creative sign-writing must just be a favourite past-time for bored Tanzanian shopkeepers.  Back in Mwanga, the whole family was sitting on the porch of the Celtel emporium, listening to Christmas carols on the radio (Silent Night in KiSwahili sound quite strange) and bouncing various babies on their knees.  When we asked if we might be able to buy a bottle or two of Fanta, their collective response was something like it might be if a parent asked his or her assembled adolescent offspring to do the washing up or go down to the shops…  Eventually one of the women heaved herself off her “chair” (actually an empty chip fat container) and went to rummage in the fridge, scowling at her siblings as if to say “well you won’t catch me chopping the potatoes, later”.  To be fair, day-to-day life is pretty arduous and the heat is enervating.  In the muslim villages, the muezzin calls the faithful to the first prayers of the day before 5am, and it’s not as if anyone goes back to bed afterwards.  So, hardly surprising everyone was a little sleepy by 11am as the sun climbed higher and frazzled anything foolish enough to be out and about – no mad dogs in evidence but just one Englishwoman and one Welshman and of course those deranged coach drivers…

After a few more days of life on the flat, it was time to leave the huge sisal plantations of the plain and wind our way up into the hills.  Actually, the main road carried on towards Dar es Salaam so it wasn’t an “enforced” detour but a voluntary side trip to visit the highland town of Lushoto.  Considering this particular detour involved 34km of ascent and a height gain of 1000 metres, it was just as well the destination was worth visiting!  Thankfully, the road was very well made and tarmac all the way, local resources and expertise having been aided considerably by the involvement of a German engineering outfit, who helped construct the tarred road in the 1980s.  In fact, German influence predates the building of the road by quite some time as Lushoto once served as the unofficial summer retreat of the colonial administrators during the early years of the 20th century when Tanganyika was controlled by Germany.

You can see why they chose this particular town.  The location is spectacular, the settlement nestling in a lush green valley with plentiful water, fruit, vegetables and fresh air.  It was amazing how much cooler and more pleasant the place was after the hot and sticky plain we’d been traversing.  As well as the usual bananas, mangoes and pineapple, the market was overflowing with fresh produce – carrots, peppers, cucumbers and passion fruit bursting with tangy juice.  There were trays of tiny purplish plums and small apricots and peaches – these are grown in the northern Usambara Mountains but that’s local enough to keep the prices down.  A hundred shillings (5p) buys you about two dozen mouthwatering plums.

We enjoyed an unusually Sunday-esque Sunday, in the sense that Anna went to church, we went for a walk, had a leisurely lunch and read our books before having yet another meal!  We were guided on the walk by a local man, one of six guides working for the Lushoto community tourism project, which tries to introduce foreigners to the local landscape (physical and cultural) and contributes directly to development initiatives through the tourist revenue raised.  It’s a very well-organised affair, with various trips to choose from and the fees clearly explained.  Feeling lazy after our climb the previous day, we opted for the half-day excursion to a village called Irente, which is home to a farm run by a Lutheran Mission and a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the steppe far, far below.

The viewpoint itself is sufficiently popular to have attracted a fair amount of graffiti from local youths (not just in Doncaster that it happens, then) but the walk itself was very pleasant and the lunch at the farm was superb.  It’s not everyday you get fresh rye bread, real cheese, and butter, salad and mulberry jam for lunch…well, at least not when you’re cycling through Africa!  Replete, and weighed down with more bread, cheese and jam from the farm shop, we returned to Lushoto and hid from the sun for the rest of the afternoon.  We could easily have spent several days in this highland haven, but were conscious of the fact that we still had a few hundred kilometres to cover before we reached Dar es Salaam.  To be honest, there was another reason we were eager to hit the road as well.  After 500 days on the road and with our last view of the ocean six months ago, just before we reached Accra in Ghana –  we were quite excited about seeing the Indian Ocean!

We swooshed back down the road and it took barely two hours to descend as far as Mombo – a stretch that had taken us five hours on the way up!  The teams of men clearing the verges of grass and hacking the shrubs that threatened to engulf the narrow road, looked on in bemusment.  “Surely we saw you the other day?” was obviously what they were thinking.  Obviously cycling a fully laden bike up a big hill only to cycle back down again with the same stuff makes very little sense!  For us, though, it was a very enjoyable and effortless start to the day and over in a flash!  All-too-soon we were back on the plain among the sisal.  Sisal, in case you’re wondering, is a spiky plant that looks like aloe or agave.  It’s grown on huge plantations, having been introduced about a hundred years ago (it’s not native to these parts).  The fibrous material harvested from the plants is nowadays used for making car parcel shelves and the like (apparently it’s preferable to plastic as it’s biodegradable).  The methods for harvesting and caring for the crop don’t seem to have changed much, though, with every plant tended by hand and only the odd tractor to help with the mammoth task of collecting and transporting the green blades.  A railway line accompanied us across the plain – presumably originally built to transport the crop, it has long since fallen into disuse, only the odd signal box and rusting post poking up out of the green sisal sea beside the tracks.

After overnighting at the grandly-named “Segera Highway Motel” we set off at dawn on the 13th to cover a 130-odd kilometre stretch along the coast.  We were a little way inland so didn’t set eyes on the sea just yet, and the preponderance of rivers (mainly dry) running down to the ocean and hence across our path made for a somewhat up and down day…  So it was getting late by the time we climbed the final hill, from the Wami river, and we enjoyed a spectacular savannah sunset just before pulling into a tiny village which fortunately had a reasonable (by our standards) guesthouse and somewhere serving (very tasty) chicken and rice – or chip omelette for the veggie.  There were plenty of people out and about despite the late hour, getting ready for the big day – the 14th was election day and Tanzanians show an interest in politics and determination to exercise their democratic rights which would put many western electorates to shame.

The clear skies promised another hot day as we left the tarmac at Msata, taking a 60km short-cut to Bagamoyo on the coast.  Having had our puncture-repair kit snatched by an overly-curious child in Rwanda a few weeks ago and having since used our small spare tube of glue to patch a couple of punctures, we were hoping to avoid any more before reaching Dar – but it wasn’t to be.  Shortly after setting out, Anna’s rear tyre looked decidedly squashy, so we stopped in the next village to get a cold drink and see if anyone could help.  Every village seems to have a bike mechanic/butcher, as so many people use bikes to get around but don’t have the tools or knowledge to maintain them themselves – and luckily, this place was no different.  Before long, a group had gathered to watch the mechanic, who took a razor-blade to roughen up the inner tube, before sticking one of our remaining patches in place with the contents of a huge tube of rubber cement.  The assembled crowd were perplexed by our miniature pump and watched intently as Luke huffed and puffed trying to get the tyre properly inflated.  With that sorted, we got on our way as the morning wore on and the temperature climbed steadily.  Despite the out-of-the-way nature of the dirt road, we had plenty of company as anyone and everyone over the age of eighteen went to the polls.
The women seemed to be out in particular numbers, forming colourfullysinuous lines as they patiently queued outside the voting booths, some of which were little more than a few pieces of wicker and an upturned oil drum or three!  In the end, our competition to see who would see the sea first proved to be a waste of time as the flat landscape and scrubby vegetation meant we couldn’t catch a glimpse until we reached the town and walked down to the beach.  Luke immediately dived in thinking he’d cool off, but was shocked by the temperature of the water in the shallows – as hot as a bath!  Further out the sea was a bit cooler, but definitely nothing like the Atlantic – so even Anna was eventually persuaded to take a dip!

Bagamoyo itself was a fascinating place – a crumbling relic of Portuguese and Arab domination with noticeable German and British influences thrown in.  As in Ghana, the Tanzanian coastline was a focus of the slave trade, which – along with spices and other crops – brought significant wealth and resulted in some fine buildings being thrown up.  With the white sand beaches, palm trees and traditional fishing boats providing a backdrop, the town is certainly picturesque.  It was a lovely place to spend a couple of days resting before continuing down the coast to Kunduchi, a fishing village turned holiday resort where we enjoyed another couple of days swimming, sunning ourselves, and trying to overcome Anna’s dislike of seaweed.

We’d been lucky enough to make contact with a tour operator in Dar – Hippo Tours, a small company specialising in safaris to the southern circuit of game reserves as well as Zanzibar and Mafia islands.  Not only had they offered to take care of our flights to Zanzibar, but Francesca, the Swiss-Italian marketing manager, took us under her wing and put us up for a couple of nights while we explored the city.  She’s also giving the bikes a safe home while we have a break from the saddle – thanks Fran!  What’s more, her boss, Massimo and his fiancée Georgina invited us all over for a fantastic Italian dinner to learn all about our adventures – ah, bruschetta and rocket salad…

So this afternoon we will board a tiny plane for the 20-minute hop over to Zanzibar, leaving the bikes behind for a two-week holiday.  2005 has been an extraordinary year for us, and we have made it this far thanks in no small part to all the support and encouragement we’ve received from all of you who follow our progress on this website.  Thank you and keep reading!  We’ll post more news early in the New Year before we hit the road again, but in the meantime Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!


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