Distance Cycled : 21,759km
Kilimanjaro isn’t visible thanks to a cloudy afternoon, but Mount Meru is dramatic enough for us – looming over the rather luxurious Karama Lodge where we are spending a few days resting in Arusha. We’ve had a tough three weeks, and it seems a long time since we left Kigali and headed East into Tanzania. Rain and hills gave way to a more rolling landscape studded with mango trees and finally to parched plains, dusty Maasai villages and wind-whipped acacias. With the notable exception of a visit to the Ngorongoro Crater, we have not been doing anything too touristy, although the ride has been no less fascinating for it!
Leaving Kigali was a bit of a headache, partly thanks to traffic volumes and hills but also because we’d had dinner the night before with a Norwegian journalist who had an aptitude for consuming beer as well as searching out stories! It was well after 1am by the time we left the restaurant and so it was a little difficult to be enthusiastic about getting back on the bikes at 8am the next muggy morning. Still, we were lucky that the road flattened out somewhat as we travelled east towards Rusumo, on the border with Tanzania. Rusumo is an unremarkable place,
except perhaps for the torrent of muddy water that rushes by under the frontier bridge as the Kagera River is forced through a narrow defile. On both sides of the border, the guards were not only in their offices at 7am but were polite and efficient as well! The Tanzanian one asked us if we were sure three months would be enough? He then told us to look out for lions and sent us on our way. There was no need for large cats to spice things up that day – the terrain was enough of a challenge as we crawled through a landscape so vast and unpopulated that it made us reconsider what it means to say you feel “insignificant”. In all directions, dense forest carpeted the landscape with dark green, brighter where the sun lit up the canopy and darker where the clouds lay overhead. It was almost like being at sea. Thankfully, some people do live in this region of Tanzania and we were able to get bananas and avocados aplenty in the little villages, where children seemed positively frightened by the appearance of two white aliens with funny helmets and sweaty faces. The road itself was newly constructed and deep cuttings saved us from going up and over every hill that lay on our route. The sandmartins seemed to approve of the roadbuilding too, busily scooping midges off the tarmac and ferrying them back to their nest-holes in the reddish banks. For a week we cycled on through a gradually changing landscape, avocadoes were replaced by mangos as the rainy climate of Rwanda was left further behind, rock-build huts gave way to round mud-and-straw constructions with outdoor “kitchens” consisting of a circle of baked earth, clean-swept and dotted with little stools, fire-cracked rock and blackened cooking pots. Children tumbled from every doorway to catch a glimpse of the wazungu, tripping over fat ducks, scraggy chickens and piles of mango stones. Children on the roadside who were close enough to say hello greeted us with “shikamoo” – a Swahili word which means something along the lines of “I show my respect to you” – reserved for elders and teachers and the like! This was something of a welcome change, and we found ourselves beaming back and responding “marahaba”. Slightly more comical was the other favourite phrase the kids used – “good morning, teacher!” They seemed unperturbed by the fact that we were not teachers and that it was, very often, well into the afternoon when they hailed us.
The tarmac that had unexpectedly continued beyond the town of Nzega – a sort of “map error in your favour” which we appreciated greatly – came to a sudden end late one afternoon 20km short of the small truckstop town of Shelui. We arrived covered in dust, with shoes full of sand and collapsed into a cafe where we were revived by a friendly man with clove-scented tea and fresh maandazi aplenty. Luke then gamely volunteered to go and investigate the plethora of guesthouses to see which was the least grimy. Lorries lined both sides of the road and rather a lot of young (and not-so-young) ladies seemed to be hanging around in doorways. While Luke searched (for a room), Anna had ample opportunity to appreciate the extent of the entertainment in Shelui. It consisted (if you discount the ladies) of one pool table, out in the open air by the roadside and surrounded by at least twenty boys. Not only did they have to share the only cue, but they also seemed to be having trouble rustling up enough small change to actually release the balls… Nonetheless, they seemed to be coping, taking it in turns to hit the cue ball around the table. Every now and again one would make a comment…presumably something along the lines of “ooh, nice ricochet, Mohammed”. And kids in rural British communities think they have a hard time – at least they generally have a TV! Meanwhile, a quite incredible roost was taking place as the sun began to dip behind the escarpment we would climb the following morning. At least fifty small hawks, about the size of kestrels, noisily descended on an unusually large tree in the centre of the village – not a good time for a mouse to be out and about. We actually slept very well that night, the truckers were obviously too tired by their journeys to be too rowdy and we soon found out why! The road was absolutely abysmal, and we were soon covered in fine, gritty dust, creaking up a stupidly steep hill which the lorries took turns trying to ascend, pausing to allow the engines to cool off at strategic points. We were very grateful when a construction worker hollered at us when we reached a junction and explained that there was an alternative route to our destination which by-passed the mess of rock and sand, the lorries and dust clouds. Throwing caution to the wind – we have found Africans to be, well, wrong most of the time when it comes to distances and directions – we eagerly turned off the lung-clogging road onto smooth gravel and hardly saw another lorry all day. Phew. We rested up in Singida for a day – a town which seemed to be very busy doing nothing much at all, but it did at least have somewhere to stay with a hot shower. After fifteen minutes under a stream of warm water and copious soap we still managed to turn the towels browny-orange – the dust in Tanzania seems to get very attached to us. With a rockier landscape and more vegetation, we were spared another day of dust when we left Singida but we caught the full force of a ferocious wind which had until then resisted blasting us head-on. It was as though we had strayed into the aerodynamics lab of some university where they had cranked the wind-speed up to hurricane force. Birds, looking not a little startled, hurtled past us in the opposite direction to the one they were hoping for and goatherds guided their flocks into the lee of a boulder or a tree, and pulled their cloaks over their heads. Overhead, even the clouds seemed to be being ripped and pulled apart in the bright blue sky – it was a day of slow progress for us!
Thanks to the friendly reactions of most locals and the remote areas we have been cycling through, we’ve renewed our efforts to learn some Swahili! Even more so than in Kenya, where it is also an official language (along with English), everyone here seems to have a good command of Swahili. Also it seems to be fearsomely complicated in many respects, we have managed to memorise a few key phrases from our dictionary/phrasebook and making the effort alone seems to be much appreciated! Of course, with over 100 tribes in Tanzania, even Swahili is a second language for most people. The reason everyone speaks it so well seems to stem from the experiment with African socialism that Tanzania endured in the 1960s. The then president, Julius Nyerere, introduced a concept called Ujamaa, which means something like togetherness or familyhood. A key part of his policy was to create Ujamaa villages, which effectively brought together Tanzanians of different ethnicities, the idea being that they would live together harmoniously and benefit from their collective endeavour… It failed in economic terms as productive areas of land were abandoned as agriculturalists moved to the new collectives, and because Tanzania failed to diversify or develop a manufacturing industry which would ensure an income from foreign exports, as neighbouring Kenya did.
However, the policy does seem to have fostered a genuine sense of national identity – something that appears to be rare among Africans, whose strongest affiliation is generally to their family and then their tribe. Much of the resentment and conflict in countries like Nigeria and Sudan seems to stem from the lack of complete integration of different tribes into the political system. Not so in Tanzania, where there has been no ethnic conflict and no civil unrest since the country gained independence in 1961. Swahili seems to reinforce this sense of “togetherness”, acting as a lingua franca to enable both trade and the exchange of ideas to flourish regardless of tribal affiliation.
As the mango trees gave way to acacia, there was also a startling change in the human landscape – we had been passing brightly-robed ladies with braided hair carrying their rather podgy babies in papooses slung over one shoulder, but suddenly the profiles of the people we passed were more slender, perhaps more graceful and their walk a sort of confident sashay. The red clothing and welter of beaded and glittering jewellery left us in no doubt – we were back in the land of the Maasai! This enigmatic tribe needs no introduction in some respects – everyone has seen a picture of a rather forbidding looking Maasai warrior at some point and there must be a documentary or a book out somewhere in the world every week about the tribe.
Originally the most feared and aggressively expansionist tribe in East Africa, the Maasai today number less than a million and their place in modern society is a rather uneasy one. Their traditional way of life – one of semi-nomadic pastorialism – has become difficult to sustain as their ancestral homelands have been alternately earmarked for development and gazetted as national parks and reserves, and successive governments have tried to force them to settle, to accept “Western” medicine, educational and political systems. Understandably, there’s been fierce resistance to this and exclusion from decision-making and the profits of tourism have led to a further entrenchment by the Maasai who seem determined to hold on to their traditional way of life. The Maasai are undoubtedly a huge earner of tourist dollars for both Kenya and Tanzania – their homeland spans the borders of these two countries – and have for a long time not seen any of the benefits of the industry, while their lifes have presumably suffered from the negative impact of the more intrusive tour companies. Many a safari itinerary includes a visit to a Maasai boma or village/camp, but increasingly the Maasai are being encouraged to set up cultural tourism programmes, which allow them some control over the way in which visitors visit and helps to ensure that foreign cash finds a way into the local economy rather than being creamed off by tour operators based (largely) in the West.
But enough about all that – there is no question that the Maasai are beautiful to behold. Clothing, hairstyle, jewellery and even the colour of garments worn are governed by a system of age sets rather than personal preference…though there does seem to be some flexibility. A slender red splodge on the landscape might be an adolescent tending goats, yet to enter the stage of warriorhood, while a young girl dressed in black and wearing a birghtly beaded ruff denotes a young girl who has undergone circumcision (you can guess the Maasai have come under pressure with regard to that custom as well) but is yet to be married. Scanning the landscape and passing groups of Maasai men or women on our bikes is rather like playing a decoding game – without exchanging a word we know that the group of ladies in bright blue with fine chains running from neck to ear, are married, and that the brightly beaded ear decorations or silver-white disks on their heads have something to do with the number of children they have raised! The Maasai seem also to have a reputation for being somewhat haughty and aloof, and we’ve certainly found some individulas to be a little reserved compared with other Tanzanians. In fact, they seem either incredibly happy and giggly or rather subdued and grumpy! Luke suggested that the cheerful ones had just rustled a load of cattle, while the disgruntled ones were on the receiving end – your cattle are effectively your bank balance if you’re a pastoralist who’s diet traditionally consists of blood and milk…well, perhaps it’s not that simple!
After a day “off”, when we scrambled up the imposing extinct volcanic cone of Mount Hanang, to get some fantasic views of the plains below, and then another wind-whipped day of riding, we descended (yet again) to the floor of the Rift Valley. From the town of Babati, we took a small cross-country route which saw very little traffic that was not of the footed or hooved variety. By midday, the heat on the baking white expanse was intense and as we rested in the shade of an acacia, a dog appeared from nowhere, flopped down in a pool of muddy water to cool down, and then hurried on, apparently on a mission. He left a trail of soggy pawprints, which seemed the only sign of life for miles around. A couple of kilometres down the road we discovered where everyone was! The weekly Wednesday market was being held in a small town at the foot of the wooded escarpment, and everyone from the region seemed to be in attendance, the Maasai women appeared to have thrown on all the jewellery their earlobes and wrists could handle and were jangling and tinkling about the place while the men got down to some serious drinking and the boys attempted to stop flocks of goats intermingling as they drove them to market. These rural markets seem to be great social events, and there was a great deal of hubbub and colour and piles of fruit and veg, and sweet-smelling smoke from braziers tended by women and girls. It was after lunch and evidently the men were not on their first glass (bottle?) of spirit, so there was also a fair amount of drunkeness and wobbly riding of bicycles as we passed through! We forded a stream at the same time as a herd of cattle a little further on, and then began a knee-killing ascent of 900 metres on a track-cum-road that saw no point in messing about and ascending gradually, instead zig-zagging mercilessly up and up and up. It got to the stage where we were in bottom gear and the tyres were still skidding on the sandy surface, but eventually we made it to the top and squinted into the late afternoon sun as we followed the ridg-top along to a small town called Mbulu. Hereabouts, lives another pastoralist tribe called the Barbaig. They are distantly related to the Maasai, but relations must not be good as they call them “mbulu” which means “unintelligent”…we wondered whether the town of the same name would be full of village idiots…? Of course it wasn’t, but it did have a little unsignposted cafe that we stumbled across by chance – it was packed to the gunnels with bleary eyed locals sipping aromatic tea and tucking into piles of cake, doughnuts and omelettes – a sort of Aladdin’s cave for a cyclist in need of a pile of carbohydrates!
We needed the energy, as a few more hills lay ahead before we descended to the plain once more, and the weather decided to try a new spin on the wind challenge – literally. Red dust devils whirled about the plain, occasionally catching us and whisking through our wheels before petering out in a hedgerow or a back yard. Further off, tall plumes of beige-coloured dust rose and hovered over the landscape. We hoped none of these bigger twisters would come our way! We arrived safely in Karatu, a town where tourists were obviously more common. This was immediately apparent as “good morning, teacher” was replaced with “give me money, give me pen, I am schoolchild, give me money”. As we were in a tourist trap, we decided to splurge and do the touristy thing – a visit to the Ngorongoro Crater was in order. It is the largest unbroken caldera in the world – 610 metres deep and 260 km squared – and is a microcosm of East African scenery and game.
The safari companies rave about the scenic grandeur and stunning views and call it the eighth wonder of the world. It is spectacular, especially as the drive up to the crater rim takes you through dense forest, with lianas trailing onto the track and thick early morning mist all around. We saw a plethora of wild animals (as well as a fair number of noisy humans who nevertheless failed to dent our enjoyment) and had a very enjoyable day out of the saddle, enjoying being driven around for once! We also visited Oldupai Gorge, a site of great palaeoanthropological importance even if there is little to actually see. The on-site museum was very good, rather better than Anna’s recall of first-year archaeology lectures…her answers to Luke’s questions about the antiquity of various hominids being rather vague…”well, they’re, you know, old”… There was a small monument erected at the spot where the first hominid remains to be found in the gorge were located.. That and the evident hero-worship of the original excavators of the site – Louis and Mary Leakey – by the museum curators seemed a bit over-the-top, to be honest. The gorge itself was spectacular in a dessicated and deserted sort of way, like something out of the American southwest. Not a shred of green on the landscape, and only the odd tumbleweed whirling by to suggest any movement or life at all, however good a habitat it may have been for the early hominids that lived here several million years ago!
Even if the lack of rain means natural verdure is in short supply, yellow and green nevertheless seem to be the colours of the moment here in Tanzania. These are the colours of the CCM political party – there is an election later this month and everyone we meet seems pretty opinionated about the affair! Perhaps we get a skewed view because people we talk to in English (our Swahili is, as we said, still at the level of “please can I have another doughnut” and not up to political debate) are likely to be more educated and therefore perhaps more interested in political affairs. The elections have already been held in Zanzibar and appear to have seen none of the blood-letting that has marred past polls – which is a relief as we are heading to the island in a few weeks!! The CCM party won on Zanzibar, though it is not one of their strongholds, and so it is widely believed they will be re-elected comfortably. We met a young Somali man last week – a refugee from the war in his country with a tragic story of his own – who not only seemed to know all about the election here in Tanzania, but also quizzed us about the current Conservative party leadership contest!! At first I wondered what the tories had to do with Cameroon…until it became clear he was talking about David Cameron! You meet the most unlikely people when you stop in a small village for a cup of tea and a doughnut…
We head to the city of Dar es Salaam next, which lies some 700km south-east of Arusha, and then we’ll head out to Zanzibar for a good rest over Christmas. It may be a little difficult to find Christmas pudding or cranberry sauce on an African island dominated by Islam…but then perhaps the apparently beautiful beaches and historical sites with make up for it. This time last year we were riding through the Western Sahara, singing Christmas carols which thankfully no-one was around to hear (except perhaps the locusts). This Advent, we will have to come up with another strategy for feeling seasonal!