Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Welcome to the Ride

Arriving in Africa didn’t seem so foreign to me this time, yet the ride had taken an unexpected turn – now I was joined by my new wife-to-be; a whole new kind of adventure.  Between us and our first stop were the lands of the Maasai, Kilimanjaro and a big safari.

Jet-set to get set

We landed; we’d made it.  Looking back at it now, it was crazy – six months ago I didn’t even know this woman.  Now she was beside me, ready to cycle the rest of Africa together.  If you haven’t met her already, meet Manoela.

The joy of our arrival in Africa was coupled with nervousness.  Manu had never cycled more than a few miles before, never been to Africa and all-in-all had never taken quite such an enormous gamble – neither had I – but we were committed.  In the game of life we were rolling the dice, giving a chance to our romantic dream.

All this into 2 bags?
Manu e Pretinha

On our way through the airport terminal broad, irrepressible smiles welcomed us.  Kenyans seem to smile with such ease and we were receiving a royal display – it was a good start.  With bike and bags collected we met possibly the most charming taxi driver in Africa, Charles, and began the slalom through the chaos of Nairobi in rush hour.

Manu’s nerves were eased by the unexpected familiarity of everyday life passing by the window, it resembled her native Brazil.  Charles’ hospitality did the rest.  Hello Africa!

Marathon Bike Mechanic
Cycling Couple

The nervous excitement and relief at our arrival left us grinning for a week, while we got the bikes – Habaqa and Pretinha – ready, and showered in the daily downpours.

The comfortable home and generosity of our hosts, Norbert and Nicola, was hard to leave but the time to begin our adventure had arrived.  We rolled out…

Welcome to the ride

Its Simply Miles Ahead

Still adjusting to the new weight of the bike beneath her, Manu was about to face a unpleasant test, navigating safely through the mayhem of cars, people, trucks, bikes, and chickens that ebb their way erratically through the city.

At the first roundabout my heart was in my mouth as I looked back to see Manu almost losing her balance while surrounded by traffic.  It hit a nerve; her lip trembled but she took a deep breath and showed her mettle.  We pedalled on. ‘If you can get through that you can get through anything’, I thought to myself. 

Escaping Nairobi

We soon escaped the chaos and each time I looked over my shoulder, my confidence grew.  I could see Manu was enjoying herself.  All the uncertainty faded away and as we peeled off the road for lunch our joy and relief was almost tangible enough to eat.

Watermelon Smile

We cycled a little further each day, doing our best to dodge the rains and finding our rhythm.  Whether being burnt by the sun or soaked by the rain, it was clear we would enjoy our life on the road together.  The highlight of our experiences on the first days was Meeting the Maasai – an extraordinary day.

Epic Day

You are now entering Tanzania

One morning, just after dawn, we rolled across the border into Tanzania feeling high on life.  However the uncertainties of life on the road were soon to be exposed.

Looking at the map for the day we’d planned our food and water stops and were contemplating our first night in the tent.  There was an immediate sense that things might be more challenging in Tanzania in the first town.  By comparison with Kenya, the place seemed a notch down the development ladder; buildings more decrepit, food more basic and a general absence of English-speakers. We soon learnt the term ‘chipsi mayi’ – egg and chips, which seemed like the best food on offer for our second breakfast.

Our next stop was supposed to be 35km down the road. A few hours down the road however, there was no sign of it.  We pedalled along, taking in the magnificent panoramas around us of Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro.  40km, 50km still no town; by this time we were running on fumes.  The towns posted on the map were nowhere to be seen.  With little spare water or food we had no choice but to push on.

Lively Little Maasai
As Far as the Eye Can See

A tiny Maasai shop offered salvation in the form of warm coke and biscuits.  It was temporary relief; the energy deficit soon wore on us again as we started cycling up the side of Mt Meru.  We were already well past Manu’s longest day yet (70km) and she was having to dig deep to keep her legs turning with gravity leaning against her.

Heaving Herself Uphill

By now it was close to six o’clock; twelve hours on the road.  Still no towns, just mountain. Each time I looked round she smiled.  It was the kind of smile that says, I’m ok, this is bloody hard but I’m ok, preferably never again, but don’t stop, I can keep going.

Far up the road we saw some houses, our spirits raised.  Turn by turn we made it there, it’s not the kind of place you would normally stop but the Savoy wouldn’t have been better.  Surrounded by drunkards and hustlers we gorged ourselves on rice, eggs, chips, coke and beans.  The physical effect was a handsome one; we watched the last of the day’s sun in euphoria.

Meru Hill Silhouette

Arusha - the next day’s intended destination - was still 35km away but after the next ridge we were told it was all downhill.  They say it’s not good to ride at night in Africa, but with no better option and feeling empowered by our mighty feed we pedalled off into the darkening night; fuelled as much by our fears as by our food.

It’s rare that you can trust the directions or descriptions while on the road but thankfully the road tilted downward.  Head torches and smiles beaming we circled the Mt Meru, serenely backlit by moonlight.

Sketch of Epic Day

We arrived in Arusha at 9pm – 110km and 13 hours after we began – elated and exhausted.  Few days have I gone to bed so tired or so fulfilled. This was ‘Epic Day’.

End of the 'Epic' Day

Safari

After our exertions arriving we spent a few days in Arusha.  While in the safari capital of the world we haggled our best to get an inexpensive day on safari.  Not the famous Serengeti or Ngoro Ngoro but Lake Manyara.  We knew nothing about the place but off we went crammed on a mini-bus with famers’ butts and breath in our face, and a chicken flapping at our feet; true budget safari style.  

I could probably write a volume about our day on safari but to save on time I’ll furnish you with a paragraph and my photos.

The great mountain wall of the East African Rift valley spills down one side of the park into a rainforest-like area, home to monkeys, countless birds, and tree-dwelling lions*.  On the fringes of the forest giraffe peer shyly over the trees tops and huge families of elephant trample through the thick vegetation and play in the rivers.  The landscape then opens out to a lowland savannah with herds of wildebeest, buffalo. The vast lake lines the opposite side teaming with hippos and flamingos.  Lake Manyara National Park is an environment unlike anywhere else on Earth.

* We didn’t see the lions but they’re there, somewhere.

Same Road

After the trials of ‘Epic Day’ nothing ahead seemed too daunting. We got into our rhythm of early starts, big feeds and early nights.  Even a few days of brutal headwinds didn’t dampen our spirits.

Caution: Wind!
Palm Plantation

Feeling confident, we took the suggestion of Pete Gostelow and spent two days on a small dirt road near Same.  At times the surface was in pretty bad condition - Manu took her first tumble - nevertheless it was a great suggestion the scenery was majestic.

Uncontrollable Curosity
Burton-like Baobab

Along this road less travelled the local people seemed as interested in us as we are in them, and we were given a warm welcome.  No money for photos exchanges or rip-off cola, this was real Tanzanian life escaping from the misrepresentative micro-culture that exists in most tourist destinations around the world.  We loved it.

Plain, Mountain, Home

A few rain soaked days later we sighted our goal, the Indian Ocean. We sailed down the final hills into Tanga and wasted no time, shedding our clothes and diving into the warm sea. It signalled the end of our first leg; what a safari (Swahili for journey) it had been. Next stop volunteering amid the white sands and turquoise seas of Zanzibar.

Sunset in Tanga