31 – January 18th 2006 – Mbeya, Tanzania

Distance Cycled : 23,344km

 Well, this is our fourth update from Tanzania and you might be forgiven for thinking we had forgotten we are supposed to get to Cape Town this year!  Fear not, we are but 100km from the Malawian border and about to head south into that country.  Our ride from Dar has been scenic for the most part and we got to know the (limited) attractions of a town called Iringa rather well, thanks to a sojourn there brought on by Luke’s pesky saddle sores…

Our holiday on Zanzibar was, predictably, over in a flash and by January 3rd we were once again on the mainland and back on the bikes.  To avoid the rush hour we left Dar at 10.30am, by which time it was seriously hot.  It always feels really weird to be back in the saddle after a week or more of rest, but we couldn’t afford to wobble and veer too much in the crazy traffic.  It was 15km before we were clear of the built-up area, finally swapping concrete for coconut palms, fly-overs for fig trees and broken glass for…no wait, the verges were still strewn with shards of glass, metal and innumerable plastic bags, bottles and wrappers.  Every time a coach screamed by, we flinched for two reasons – the proximity of the speeding vehicle to our panniers and the onslaught of flying rubbish.  No-one on a Tanzanian bus would think to keep their rubbish onboard – it is simply flung out of the window, never mind whether there is a child/cow/cyclist/other coach in the line of fire!!

Well, at least plastic is fairly light…but nappies and left-over kebabs are less pleasant.  This all goes to explain, perhaps, why Anna is scowling rather than beaming in the photo we took that lunchtime.  Having posed in front of our trusty tripod on a piste in Mauritania after 7500km, and at the end of a long day in Nigeria with 15000km under our wheels, we couldn’t really break with tradition and leave 22500km undocumented, could we?  This all caused a good deal of consternation and amusement in the little village we found ourselves in – it’s no wonder people look at us like we are a travelling circus sometimes!

Despite the first cycling day of 2006 being a rather hot and tiring one, however, we found ourselves feeling very contented that evening as we installed ourselves in a basic guesthouse and attacked a plate of chipsi mayai in the small trading centre of Mlandizi.  In fact, we weren’t the only circus on the road that day – a crowd of locals, laughing and whooping, had gathered outside the guesthouse, watching a group of performers.  It involved a man on very long stilts, a huge python, some very bright costumes and possibly a few dented musical instruments.  I’m not sure it was a terribly well-rehearsed programme but it seemed to go down well!&nsbp; Incredibly, barely 65km from Dar es Salaam and not much further from Zanzibar, the tourist treatment of foreigners was completely absent.  Not a “Maasai” (many are just dressed up locals) trinket-vendor in sight, no inflated prices for food and drink and a quiet courtesy from shopkeepers, passers-by and – especially noticeable – children.  The landlady of the guesthouse seemed genuinely pleased that we had decided to stay at her place (though we very nearly didn’t, having accidentally walked into the adjacent agricultural feeds shop, which happened to be under the guesthouse sign…) and literally bowed as she accepted the money for our night’s accommodation with both hands outstretched.

The road to Morogoro, the first major town after leaving Dar, was a rather hot and dusty affair with more of the maniac drivers to make our lives miserable.  Still, as we got nearer the scenery became more dramatic and the town itself, ringed by impressive mountains, with a few colonial buildings among the one-storey structures, reminded us a little of Ugandan towns – rather laid-back and friendly.  That said, there were some superb scowls from the Maasai traders hunkered down by their street “stalls” – actually a tarpaulin spread on the pavement and piled with goods. Small wonder, given that their wares seemed to consist solely of teetering piles of plastic flip-flops.  Granted, virtually everyone in Africa wears them, but the market must surely become saturated at some point…?  Rather surprisingly, we also found pistachio ice-cream and an eatery serving french onion soup and other such delights (predictably gastronomic delights).  The road was calmer thereafter, with quite a bit of traffic heading north to the official capital – Dodoma – which is apparently a dusty backwater not favoured by the many government officials who are required to attend meetings there.  Supposedly, despite 30 years as the national capital, most people with the money escape to Dar at the weekends for a bigger choice of food and entertainment.

The ride to Mikumi village would not be anything special, the road traversing a parched and scrubby landscape in the tarmac-melting heat, were it not for the fact that the highway cuts right through the middle of Mikumi National Park.  Even then, we figured any sensible creature would keep well away from the speeding buses and lorries to avoid getting squashed.  Far from it!  After an uneventful lunch stop where the only wildlife in evidence was a fearsome cloud of tsetse flies (drawing blood and expletives from us as they bit), the afternoon was far more eventful.  Graceful impala munched impassively or skipped off into the ndergrowth, somehow managing
not to snag their long, curvaceous horns on the low branches and giraffes regarded us skeptically from a sitting-down position – as many as five of them under a single acacia, enjoying a siesta.  A blob much too large to be an antelope and mch too squat to be a giraffe then appeared by the roadside 500 metres ahead – an elephant!  It’s probably not necessary for us to tell you how big these beasts are – everyone knows an elephant is big, right?  It’s not until you have to cycle past one, however, that you notice quite how enormous they are, and how very, very big those tusks seem.  The single creature we had seen moved off from the verge and so we approached cautiously, only to see that there were another dozen animals grazing very close by!  The next hour yielded several more sightings, and we came very close to one trio, half-hidden in a patch of very long grass by the roadside.  Minutes before, Luke had casually mentioned that elephants reach speeds of 35 kilometres per hour and as Anna sped by the behemoths she glanced down at her speedometer – 34kph!  It’s amazing what a burst of adrenalin can do…  A solitary adult buffalo with two calves, their coats chocolate brown in the afternoon sun, and some skittish zebras cantering off into the forest rounded off the day nicely.  Not a bad day of game-viewing when you consider there were no park fees involved – even on a bike you don’t have to pay if you are merely “in transit” through the protected area!

After a night of dreams dominated by ear-flapping elephants…we left Mikumi village bleary-eyed and tackled a big hill which our knees seemed not to want to wake up for.  It was suddenly very quiet, and we surprised quite a few basking lizards and locals on foot, walking to who-knows-where and still heavy with sleep in the early morning.  Little wooden stands stood at the roadside, laden with green papayas streaked with yellow.  Every dwelling was ringed by half a dozen of the odd trees from which the fruit had come – their trunks look a bit like a pole covered with corrugated cardboard and are topped with a spiky spray of dark green leaves.We soon realised that the greetings coming from on high were not celestial messages but the cries of little boys who’d been hoisted aloft to pick the papayas!  After a lot of up and down, passing quiet woodland and pitifully shrivelled vegetation – the rain has failed here as elsewhere in Tanzania and East Africa – the road flattened out and we found ourselves following the Great Ruaha river, which was rushing along nicely despite the local drought.  In fact, we were going against the flow, riding towards the source in the Southern Highlands – a much wetter area, which explains why the river is still flowing!  On the far bank lay another National Park – the Udzungwa Mountains – and all day baboons and vervet monkeys tumbled from the bulbous baobab trees dotting the landscape and a plethora of birds swooped overhead.  The landscape shimmered in the heat and seemed to turn a silvery grey by midday as the sun burned down.  Along the river itself, though, lianas festooned the branches of tall and verdant trees, reeds grew in profusion and the grass was long and lush – all a perfect illustration of the cliche “water is life”!  We weren’t feeling too lively ourselves by mid-afternoon but were revived by two very kind Canadians who stopped to say hello and shared some mango with us!  They told us there were lodgings not too much further on, so we pressed on for another couple of hours and reached the “Comfort Motel”,

which was indeed quite comfortable even if the (fake!) leopardskin covers on the armchairs might not be to our taste.  The next day, we swapped baboons for hairpins, heaving ourselves up another steep escarpment, and passing numerous lorries as they cooled off their engines before attempting another section of uphill.  The lorries that were actually on the move were hardly going faster than us, and the drivers and their mates leaned out of the windows to cheer us on as we wound slowly upwards.  Thankfully the road was mostly in shade so we didn’t get as overheated as the vehicles, and the air cooled as we climbed higher too.  Here the effects of drought seemed less severe, the trees looking more healthy and less skeletal, with thick crowns cloaking the mountains around us in a rich palette of green, russet, gold and yellow.

Reaching the plateau, we found ourselves in a rather different landscape of peach-coloured soil and boulder-strewn slopes.  Sometimes we spotted young shepherds, stick in hand, trying to keep their many-coloured flocks from scattering but more often than not their presence was given away only by a distnat tinkling and clattering, reverberating from the valley walls.  Perhaps they were being elusive for a reason…last year, we were in The Gambia during the muslim feast of Tabaski, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and sees every family with the means killing a goat or a sheep (or a chicken if you’re really hard-up).  It was hard not to know about it, as we cycled past hundreds of unfortunate creatures and witnessed their dispatch.  The dusty ground was sticky and dark with blood that evening…and everyone had indigestion, having overindulged – not dissimilar to Christmas Day in the West in that respect!  Although there are many muslims in Tanzania, Iringa happens to be dominated by other faiths and so we were spared the gory spectacle this time around.  We stayed at a guest house run by the Lutheran Church, so perhaps that explains why there were a lot of goats nibbling the grass at the front of the building – the mosque garden might not be a wise choice of grazing ground…

Iringa is a beautfully situated town, amid boulder-strewn slopes and blocky rock outcrops.  It lies a few kilometres up a lung-achingly steep road, off the main Tanzam highway and is pleasantly cool – especially after the muggy heat of the Indian Ocean coast.  We probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend six nights there, though, but for a saddle sore Luke had developed, which had become infected and was causing much pain – the perils of cycle touring!  A course of antibiotics and liberal application of antiseptic seem to have got it under control and so we were on our way again on the 14th January.  It wasn’t all bad, to be honest, as Iringa has an excellent bakery – you don’t get fresh brown bread, hot from the oven, very often in Africa, and perhaps lots of that helped strengthen the invalid too!

So, we are now in Mbeya, a day or two away from the Malawian border.  Not far from Iringa, we took a small detour to visit the Stone Age site of Isimila.  Excavations have been carried out here (somewhat sporadically) since the 1950s and in 2006 a team from the University of Dar es Salaam will carry out the first Tanzanian investigations – maybe a bit overdue!  Evidence of human activity is all around – huge handaxes, cleavers and hammerstones covering the floor of the gorge – and the natural environment is pretty spectacular too, with thin needle-like pillars of sandstone and cliffs that are home to fat little rock hyraxes, bright agama lizards and scampering monkeys.  The ride from Iringa to here convinced us that Tanzania certainly is a land of many landscapes – we shared a soggy day through sharply aromatic pine and eucalyptus forest with little red frogs and slow-moving chameleons before emerging into a fertile upland region of sticky brown soil.

Lack of rain is not a problem here, and whole villages are out in force, ploughing, planting and scattering seed.  Pairs of oxen are cajoled into pulling simple ploughs through the heavy soil, paddy fields are cleared by hand with long-handled hoes and women with enamel basins of maize kernels trace ragged lines across the fields, sowing the seed and ramming home the soil with bare feet – wellies are few and far between!  The crop is already sprouting in some fields, and the wavy lines the seedlings make are testament to the sowing method – none of the regimented lines of a European field where a tractor has been at work.


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