Ten Days Touring Tanzania
An exciting update from two Vermonters volunteering abroad.
New World Tourist owners Barry Goodman & Elisa Vandervort recently contacted us to share a story of their travels in Tanzania. The couple signed up through the Peace Corps to teach nurses & midwives for a year in Dodoma. Being experienced cycle-tourists, and having two suitcase-packable Bike Fridays, Barry & Elisa recognized what an amazing opportunity for exploration this would be. So, after arriving in Tanzania, when the couple got their first chance they took an amazing 10 day adventure.
Destination: Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Northern Tanzania March / April 2016
We were fortunate to travel in northern Tanzania over university spring break. No lounging on the beach drinking beer and dancing to loud music. Our good friend Cathy made the long 36 hour trip from Vermont to join us for our adventure. “Outcome uncertain” was our daily mantra….as was “suck it up, buttercup!”
We cycled for 10 days. Our route took us: counterclockwise around the base of Kilimanjaro, west through a wildlife corridor between Arusha National Park and Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Mt Meru and Longido Peaks, then further west to the Crater Highlands and south following the Great Rift Valley and Escarpment (just east of Ngorongoro Crater) ending in the town of Mto Wa Mbu.
We hired a local guide, Michael (who guides for Afri Roots and was the first to map and cycle this route about 10 years ago) and friends of his; Juma (cook) and Seif (driver). This is the first supported cycle tour Elisa and I have done after all our self-contained travels. Although this wasn’t exactly a fancy tour package!
Our start was typically Tanzanian. Planning? Anticipation? Scheduling? Confirmation of camping or accommodations? How boring. The rental bike produced for Cathy looked like it hadn’t shifted in decades. The chain sagged from extended use and the wheels–well, not exactly round. Even after it was “serviced” by a local bike fundi (mechanic) we decided to see what we could find as an alternative. We were lucky to find another fellow, Roy, from Kili Bike Adventures, who agreed to rent us a bike. Cath and I piled into a taxi at 5pm on Friday (estimated departure, 9am Saturday) to check out the bike. She rode it 100 feet, agreed on a rental and we stuffed it back in the taxi and returned to Moshi. Elisa, in the meantime, was working out all the finances as Michael is an artist and not a money guy.
Our 9am start on Saturday was a bit delayed (by about two hours) as we decided that camp table and chairs really was a good idea rather than sitting in the dirt for all meals. Local rental was too expensive so we headed to the market to buy plastic stools and borrow a table from someone Michael knew.
We learned later that the first day cycle out of Moshi on the Arusha – Dar Es Salaam road, pushed Cath to consider the different ways to abort and escape to Zanzibar to sit on the beach and drink beer. When she swerved right instead of left to avoid a careening local bus and was narrowly missed, it made her question her sanity. Cycling on the other side of the road is incredibly challenging. Once we started climbing along the base of Mt. Kilimajaro to Marangu, the traffic was greatly reduced and the cycling improved.
The first 3 days cycling were on pavement. We climbed and dropped on the curving roads around Kili’s flanks. Banana groves, coffee fields, farmers and small villages filled with families walking to and from church for Easter Weekend dressed in their finest, contrasted with the local pubs where many men were drinking and celebrating the holiday in a different manner. How many ways can you greet the friendly locals walking along the road? “Jambo, Hujambo, Shikamoo, Salaama, Habari za asuburi, Mambo and a string of other greetings depending on whether we were addressing children, young adults, families, adults or elders. The children, on the other hand, had one clear greeting, “mzungu” or “wazungu”–the single and plural forms of foreigner in Kiswahili. Michael would often reply in a booming voice–WATOTO! His silly exclamation of “CHILDREN” made them stop their chants and think for a minute.
Our second night found us in a Wild West-type border town, just kilometers from the Kenyan border to the N.E. of Kili. We were traveling at low season, just on the cusp of the rainy season. We found that many camping options were not available. When we finally arrived tired and hot and hungry, we found that our local guides were proposing that we camp in a field behind the local police station. As we arrived by bicycle, the field filled with tons of kids ready to be entertained by the wazungu. We, however, agreed that after a hot, tiring cycle day, entertainment was not on our agenda. An hour later we were in a small guest house, Juma set up a kichen area in a sheltered courtyard, which was good since it started to rain. And we all settled into rooms where we rigged up our mosquito nets and tried to ignore the town bustle and septic field aromatherapy.
After a day of mostly climbing to the high point on the Kili circuit of about 6500 feet, we left the pavement behind and crossed into the drier rain shadow side of the mountain with Maasai Bomas (villages), lots of cattle and goats and long views down the flanks of the mountain to the Kenyan plains to the north. We spent the night camped at a rural secondary school in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Big starry sky reminiscent of home in Vermont and back in the relative comfort of our tents. Around this time, Cath decided that the craziness of the trip was much to her liking. She didn’t give up on the idea of a cold beer, but got into the rhythm of “outcome, uncertain” and the unknown of the road ahead.
The next day’s cycle landed us in a Maasai Cultural village, Olpopongi, where we had the opportunity to learn about Maasai culture and history. We camped, since the bomas (houses) we were to sleep in were too hot. Delicious food, Maasai dancing, a walk in the bush learning about food, water and medicines taken from the local plants and practice throwing a Maasai spear–were all part of the program. Our evening was spent around a campfire talking with the young Maasai, surrounded by brilliant night time stars.
From Olpopongi we headed west away from Kilimanjaro. Mt Meru guarded us from the south as we set our sights on Longido Peak and the town of Longido. We cycled rough dirt roads across a flat, open plain known as the little Serengeti. Here we saw our first giraffes, wildebeest, gazelles and zebras. A thrill to be among them on our bikes.
We headed west from Longido toward the Crater Highlands. Again, rough dirt roads, Maasai villages, herds of cattle and goats and Maasai wandering through the bush. I had my only flat when I raised my hand to wave to a Maasai man. He was dressed in traditional clothing, carrying his spear and stick, while talking on his cell phone, which diverted my attention long enough to find myself bouncing through large stones and thorns. The thorns filled my tires, but didn’t cause the flat. Hitting a large rock gave me a double “snake bite” flat as the rim pinched my tube. Not to worry, I had help from half a village of adults who appeared to assist. Elisa realized I had disappeared and cycled back to find me talking and laughing with these kind, friendly folks.
We also came across many young Maasai who were herding their cattle. These children and young adults wander the bush from dawn to dusk without any food or water. Often the very young kids would request water or food – while the older teens would simply greet us and observe. Children would sometimes greet us in the traditional Maasai manner, with their heads bowed in respect. Then we would place the palm of our hand on the top of their head, thereby acknowledging their welcome presence and blessing them. It is such a sweet way to greet someone. We watched the cues of Michael and team and tried to figure out what was appropriate in terms of sharing food and water. Never easy to be certain if we are doing harm or good. That night we relished in hot showers in another guest house (this time spotless) on the flanks of Kitumbeine Volcano at the start of the Crater Highlands.
The following day we cycled between towering volcanic peaks around the flanks of Gilai Volcano. The skies darkened over the peaks as we watched a storm grow and heard thunder rumble. Only a few kilometers from our destination at Gilai Boma, the wind and rain lashed down. We caught up with Michael and Cath on the edge of a raging stream that had been a dry creek bed only minutes before. Seif and the van were on the other side, and Seif was being led into the torrent by a skinny Maasai boy who was going to help him across to us to help us cross with our bikes. Elisa recognized a disaster in the making and insisted that we retreat back to a Maasai boma of 3-4 huts just back up the hill. We spent the next hour in a mud hut, with rain dripping through the thatched roof. We don’t know if we were in THE wife’s hut, or one of the wives’ hut. Cold and dripping wet, we entertained the seven additional kids who piled in to see who and what had descended into their compound. Once the stream receded we were able to slosh across to Gilai Boma, camped the night at a secondary school and entertained much of the town.
The following two days were magical. We followed the Great African Rift valley south along the edge of the escarpment ringing the Ngorongoro Crater area and at the base of Ol Doinyo Longai, the only active volcano in Tanzania. We were lucky to have overcast skies to keep from boiling in the hot sun. We cycled by herds of wildebeest, zebra, ostrich and gazelle and through Maasai grass lands and bomas, always within site of the majestic volcanic cone of Ol Doinyo Longai. This area apparently sees more tourists who are typically on vehicle safaris to the National Parks. As a result, we were herded and chased by every pack of kids who wanted food, water, candy, money, or our bicycles. Clearly too many tourists have come through giving things away as a way of interacting with the locals.
Upon ending our cycle trip in Mto Wa Mbu, we sent bicycles back to Moshi, washed everything we owned and prepared for a traditional safari tour with Glady’s Adventure Tours. We spent 4 days seeing unbelievable wildlife in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire Parks. The wildebeest were not yet in full migration, but in the open plains we saw thousands and thousands of animals, many with newborn calves, feasting on the greening up grass and preparing to move with the seasons.