Ngorongoro Crater

 

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Ngorongoro Crater as seen from the rim. There are over 25,000 large animals that live within this frame!

We used our break from cycling in Arusha, Tanzania to do a 2 day safari in the Ngorongoro Crater. Our guide referred to this Unesco World Heritage Site as a “natural zoo”.  In that category, it falls 2nd only to the Galápagos Islands in our experience.  Ngorongoro is a world of singular beauty that stands apart in our tour from Cairo to Capetown so far.  

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Camping at the rim of Ngorongoro Crater – an elephant and Cape buffalo visited us during the night

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Headed down to the crater early AM

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Acacia with masked weaver bird nests

We loaded a subset of our stuff (George Carlin reference) into a ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser and set off to camp overnight at the rim of the crater some 180 km west of Arusha in the Crater Highlands area of Tanzania.  This set us up for a sunrise safari. 

The blue-green views from the rim are almost worth the trip itself. At 19 km wide, Ngorongoro is one of the largest unbroken calderas in the world that isn’t a lake. Its steep walls soar to 600 meters and are a backdrop for virtually every photo (especially because we are not equipped with the requisite safari telephoto camera lens).

Animals graze and stalk their way around the open grasslands, swamps and acacia woodland on the crater floor. Minutes into our sarfari we came upon a lion napping next to a recently killed buffalo – temporarily satiated we assume. The victim was still largely intact. In the periphery, hyenas and feisty jackals were patrolling, waiting for their turn at the carcass.  We were witnessing a well established heirarchy.  

Over the next hours we saw wildebeest, zebras, black rhinos, hippos, elephants, warthogs, flamingoes, secretary birds, Thomson’s gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, Sacred Ibis, Crowned Cranes (the national bird of Uganda) and many other species.  Ahead of us in another vehicle, fellow TDA riders saw a group of lions bring down a zebra – an event very few get to witness.  

In 13 years on the job, our guide Ezekiel has seen an increase in the number of animals in the crater, thanks to better management and the eradication of poaching. Nice to hear some positive environmental news for a change.  

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Lion napping by a recent buffalo kill. Hyenas and jackels await their turn at the spoils..

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Hippos

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Crowned cranes

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Black rhinos

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Zebras

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Zebras & Flamingoes

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Thomson’s gazelles

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Wildebeest

Masai Steppe – Half Way Home

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“Jambo” from Tanzania

The Tour d’Afrique 2019 has pulled up in Arusha, Tanzania. We have crossed the equator and rolled past Mount Kilimangero, the highest peak in Africa.  Riders have 3 days off to enjoy various excursions which originate here in East Africa’s safari capital.  Next up is the 44th of 88 stages, the first of 7 straight days in the saddle which will bring us closer to our final destination of Capetown than our starting point Cairo 2 months ago. 

Masai Steppe

Tour d’Afrique – 4th section

TDA labels the 4th section of the tour “Masai Steppe”. It began with a turnover day in Nairobi, where we visited a wildlife trust for orphaned baby elephants and rhinos, as well as a rehabilitation center for Rothschild Giraffes. 

There is no regard for cyclists in the horrific traffic of Nairobi. Some routes feature speed bumps on the shoulder (where we are often forced to ride) rather than on the road itself, to keep drivers from Using them to pass other vehicles.  Some of us have nevertheless been passed on the outside while hugging the side of the road! We have become hardened to these conditions, but 2 new “sectional” riders who followed us out of the city with were injured when forced off the road less than 5 km into their inaugural TDA ride.  10 km later another rider crashed and dislocated his elbow, putting his tour on hold  for at least a month.  All of this pales in comparison to our returning rider and “mule” (he had returned to Canada for his mother’s 100th birthday and been imposed upon to return with supplies for those already here).  Tom arrived in Nairobi on the same flight, same plane, 24 hours before the Ethiopian Air crash that killed all 157 on board. 

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Entering Tanzania added a new chapter to our border chronicles. We were asked to show original proof of yellow fever vaccinations, but could offer only the photocopies we had brought of our booklets. “Look, the requirement is marked right there”, the young official scolded us, motioning towards a scrap of loose leaf taped to a wall above his head.  “Otherwise you have to buy a booklet for 50 U.S. dollars!”  

Lenore eventually half convinced him  that we had not had a recent opportunity to read the border notices, and that transposing the information from our photocopies to his regulation booklets (with his crayon) did not in fact constitute any additional guarantee that we have the necessary yellow fever antibodies. We say half convinced because his next move as as the mouthpiece of the United Republic of Tanzania was to knock down the price of the booklets to $25! Imagine bargaining for leniency with U.S. border security. 

With more time, and perhaps somewhere other than in Africa (and Italy, of course), we might have taken the matter “up the ladder” to make the argument that our documentation must have been sufficient if the remedy was negociable. We have learned to accept over paying in small measures in the interest of saving time and stress. 

We didn’t have to wait long after the border event  to bring this new found wisdom into play once again.  Rolling  in to Arusha after store hours, we took the advice of a “handler” (the usual hustler who spots tourists in the city and has the solutions to all their needs – and then some) and bought SIM cards from a street kiosk where we suspected that the price had been enhanced.  It was.  We also bought some “art” from the handler to thank him for showing us to the nearest ATM and used the expensive taxi driver he introduced us to before ducking into a cafe he recommended. All in all, for a small premium we freed ourselves of administrative tasks the next morning, had a bodyguard for our money matters, had a great meal and were whisked home safely.  Bargaining is an unfortunate necessity in some cultures. We try to keep it to a minimum.

Once out of the city we returned to our reason for being here with a spectacular ride into Arusha. Early on, baboons made themselves known in large numbers, but the highlight was a giraffe which some riders were lucky enough to have cross the highway in front of them. Mount Meru presented itself gradually on the horizon and we mistook it for Kili.  As we drew closer its silhouette was filled in with rocky contours and finally shadows and  shades of green. A Masai herder enlightened us on the local geography by pointing out the snow capped peak of Kilimangero far off to the east.

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Mount Meru, Africa’s 5th highest peak, coming into view

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Our mission for the next week

A tough stretch lies ahead. We’ll be seeing much more of the Masai tribesmen, and hopefully more wildlife.  At Babati we’ll be pulling our bigger tires out of the “permanent bag” when we trade the tarmac for the ascents and descents of the Masai Steppe – mostly on rougher gravel and sandy roads. Rains – which are in the forecast- could make things messy. 

Thanks for reading. 

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Masai

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Acacia

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Keeping current

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On the road to Arusha

Kenya

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Young member of the Samburu tribe

These past days we have been making our way south from the Ethiopian border through northern  Kenya, home to some of the most marginal lands in East Africa. 

In the not too distant past for the natives of this region, Nairobi was just some far fetched idea of a place in Kenya. The progressive paving of the Nairobi-Addis Ababa Highway all the way to the Ethiopian border over the past 10 years has turned a multi day journey by car into a matter of hours.  We could see the rock and dirt road that our TDA predecessors had to contend with running parallel to the new tarmac at points. As we said in our last post, thank you China! 

Pastoralists have eeked out a sparse existence here for centuries. Cycling through the  bleak lava rock of the Dida Galgalu Desert, the only signs of life we encountered were the odd nomad and his camels. At the tiny village of Turbi, we purposely lingered at a coke stop in order to delay our arrival at camp in the scorching badlands just to the south. 

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Desert camp south of Turbi, Kenya

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Coke stop in Turbi

The next day’s ride to Marsabit proved to be our biggest test since the blast furnace of Sudan. We have learned that statistics alone cannot forecast the difficulty of the ride that awaits. On this day, it was heavy crosswinds that turned the 122 km and just over 2000 meters of vertical into a real grind.  We spent the morning cycling in an “echelon” pace line with 12 of us in rows of 4 angled in a formation that cut the wind for those on the inside. Riders rotate in and out of the wind blocking outside position, where peddling takes much more effort.  This requires some concentration, and is hardly a way to enjoy the scenery of Africa, but it is an effective way to save energy.  We were unable to keep pace with some of the stronger riders in the afternoon, but formed some new alliances and arrived at a reasonable hour, exhausted, sweaty and caked with the grime of the desert.

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Nomadic Samburu

Continuing south to Laisamos we encountered members of nomadic tribes such as the Rendille, the Borana and the Samburu wandering with herds of camels, goats or cattle. They motioned for us to stop on our bikes to let them drink from our water bottles, which we did when we were confident that we had enough to meet our own needs.  In the town itself  we encountered women whose heads were adorned with spectacular weaves of beads, flowers and coins. They are people of the Samburu tribe, distant relatives of the Maasai, nomadic peoples  whose movements (for this group) have been altered  by the construction of a permanent water source. 

In this part of Kenya water is so scarce that families can literally spend all their time and energy sourcing and collecting it. This means that they never settle in one place and kids never go to school. The lack of an education assures that the cycle repeats itself.  Part of the objective of aid organizations in building a well is that a community can form around it and break that cycle. 

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For many, a lone acacia silhouetted on the savannah against the horizon stretching into eternity is the iconic image of Africa. The place that invokes that image is often Kenya.  

We have yet to see that terrain. Our point of entry into the country means that we will have to be patient.  But we will get there, and in the meantime we are seeing and learning much along the way. Paul Theroux wrote in Darkstar Safari:

“I reflected that a person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality.”

The Tour d’Afrique is a far cry from a safari vacation in Africa:  transfers to a hotel and game park and a checklist to mark off the “Big Five”.  With so much to take in before we get there, Nairobi remains, even for us, some  far fetched idea of a place in Kenya. 

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Mount Kenya

From Laisamos we were bussed to the frontier city of Isiolo – this to keep us safe from the bandits and tribal unrest that have presented problems along this stretch.  Gazelles,  ostriches and warthogs were spotted en route. Back on the bikes the next day, the miles to the equator at Nanyuki felt like we were in the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta.  As we gained altitude, fields of wheat and corn (large acreage farms are left over from British soldier settlement schemes after WW1) stretched before us, along with a dramatic snow capped  Mount  Kenya, the 2nd highest peak in Africa. We happened upon a cafe that offered home style brownies, milk shakes and lattes – western treats we have not seen since January.

The lone acacia  will surely follow soon. 

Thanks for reading. 

 

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Alrighty then!

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Northern Kenya

The Road Ahead

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Hello from Marsabit, Kenya

The top tier challenges of the Tour d’Afrique have presented themselves one at a time.  

The 1st one came before even  setting foot in Africa: preparing for a trip of this length and magnitude  fear of the unknown.  Once underway, our customary way of life required some retooling in order to  deal with certain realities/inevitabilities of the Tour d’Afrique: desert camping (farewell water & electricity), extreme heat (mid 40’s) followed by stiff head winds piled on top of the heat which made for a trying 3 day stretch in the Nubian Desert.

Then came Ethiopia.  

During our 17 days there (the longest we will spend in any country) we reached the highest elevation we will see on the tour (3122 meters) and climbed the mountains to get there.  Lots of mountains. We experienced the intensity of villages swarming with natives, not all of them well mannered. We were scrutinized at lunch stops and camp sites by large gatherings, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, restricted by perimeter ropes. We had one of our riders return home (hopefully temporarily) with a bone fracture after a serious fall. We took the plunge and sampled the unique Ethiopian cuisine and drunk the coffee of the nation where it was invented, paying the price with gastro issues requiring antibiotics we are loath to take. We washed them down with ubiquitous bottles of coke and 2nd rate sugar snacks (no Miss Vickies Salt & Vinegar chips on the shelves here) that we would normally avoid but are mandatory fuel here. It’s all good. We’re more than happy to have died just a wee bit for the stunning beauty of this complicated and enchanting place.  

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Marabou stork at Lake Koka, Ethiopia

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Audience

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“Youyouyouyouyou”

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No one fails to greet us

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Our days are filled with special moments

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Not quite sure what I’m up to

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We had a banner made for the lunch truck manned by Stevie – a special guy like all of the TDA staff.  It came out “almost” right.

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Lenore & Richard at a coke stop

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In fact, the drinks are rarely cold

We entered Kenya at the cross border town of Moyale with the usual drama. This time our “money exchange man” had been vetted beforehand and outfitted, for identification purposes, with the orange tagging tape wrapped around his forehead (our crew uses it everyday at intersections to mark our route) – another frenetic scene with wads of cash being exchanged in a throng of humanity and  African style mayhem – this within view of evidence of a tribal uprising which the military had put a violent end to recently, although any chalk outlines related to the “investigation” of the dozen or more fatalities had long since dissolved into the red earth. 

The British were in charge here once upon a time, and as a result we’ll have to get used to riding on the left side of the road. We have a long straight shot down the Addis-Nairobi Highway, so we have an easy adjustment period.  There are more top tier challenges ahead, however.  In Tanzania – if not before – we will have to deal with the rainy season. Finally, the outstanding road conditions we have had (for the most part) on our journey will hit some speed bumps.

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Challenging pot holes and chip seal – sounthern Sudan.

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A pristine ribbon of tarmac, near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Northern Kenya is a lava rock desert that  had terrible rutted roads in earlier versions of this tour. We rode into the market city of Marsabit yesterday on smooth surfaces.  We can expect good conditions on our route throughout Kenya.  In Tanzania we will encounter 500 km of dirt through the middle of the country.  It will be muddy if it rains.  We will switch to wider mountain biking tires for this section. As our route takes a turn westward we can expect good tarmac until we reach Namibia. In that country most of the 1400 km are a mix of sand, hard-packed clay, dirt, loose gravel, and corrugation. The TDA literature we signed off on warns us to “be prepared at this late stage in the tour to be challenged once again”.

The 1st riders of this route back in the early 2000’s had to deal with much tougher road conditions – mostly gravel (and worse). We have foreign governments to thank for the improvements, with China at the head of the list.  That country’s remarkable growth has fueled a steadily rising demand for oil, minerals and other primary commodities, many of which are abundant in sub-Saharan Africa. It has become a major development partner for countries throughout the continent, and its trade, investment, diplomatic, and political relationships continue to strengthen.

Some accuse China of behaving like former colonizers as it acquires raw materials like oil, iron, copper and zinc to fuel its own economy.  Its supporters, on the other hand, say that initiatives to build and improve infrastructure such as roads, railways and telecom systems have been a boon to Africa’s manufacturing sector, freed up domestic resources for other critical needs such as health care and education, and aided everyone doing business on the continent. The colossal ($3 trillion eventually!) “One Belt, One Road” project – a “Silk Road” type network of land and sea links connecting Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa is expected to benefit the African countries along the route. China has already financed and built a $4 billion railway between Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the continent’s first transnational electric railway. In Kenya, a Chinese firm has built a new railway connecting Nairobi to the country’s port city of Mombasa. 

We are not going to comment on what this means for this continent or the world at large (but we can’t resist pointing out that while this is going on the Americans are spending their $ and energies on building a wall).  We saw many Chinese factories south of Addis Ababa taking advantage of the cheap labour that “made in China” once implied. Some might call this progress. On the other hand, a Chinese built soccer stadium we saw erected in Costa Rica “over night” involved an exchange for fishing rights – this seems a little short sighted, at least. 

Within our sights is the road ahead, and we are happy that it will be on excellent pavement. We may be just 1st world tourists passing through, but as we ride through an endless string of villages on our way to Capetown, the impact on air quality and commerce that a paved main artery entails is blatantly obvious. The natives here are not questioning where the money for this is coming from.  Stressing over world domination is not among their day to day concerns.  We are happy for them.

Thanks for reading.

Tribal Lands

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The road to Capetown

Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa marked the end of the second stage of our Cairo to Capetown adventure. Our odometers have clicked over the 3000 km mark.

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Rolling hills south of Bahir Dar

We have said it before: big cities get in the way on bicycle tours.  Addis is home to 3 million plus and it is a congested mess.  Thirty riders convoyed in and out of the city, 2 abreast, behind our support vehicles. This is not anyone heres’ idea of fun, but it proved a safe and efficient way to get to the Addis Ababa Golf Club, our location for an off day.  Addis stands  in stark contrast to the spectacular rural countryside we had enjoyed riding in the morning.  4 cell phones would be brazenly stolen from our ranks in the next day and a half as tour participants ventured into the city.  We came here to discover Africa. Unfortunately, this is part of the experience. 

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Ethiopia has often been called the original home of mankind because of various humanoid fossil discoveries.  The famous Lucy was discovered in 1974 in the Afar region of the country.  The specimen is an early  australopithecine and is dated to about 3.2 million years ago. We met Lucy at the National Musem and were surprised that she stands barely 3 feet tall. We limited our touring to museums, abstained from the downtown nightlife and came away unscathed.  And yes – some of you may have been asking yourself – G. did play 9 holes in Addis.  Our off day was above par in all respects. 

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We traded 4 sectional riders for 4 new ones in Addis. The transfusion of new blood has been good for the core group going “all he way”.  We have now met 2 people who have summited Everest  in our lives, both of them women. A year ago we met Pam from Fla. who likes to have a steak every night for dinner.  New rider and Everest conquerer Irena from Moscow is also a committed carnivore. She told us of a woman who died on the mountain in the same group as her own successful Everest bid. With a heavy Russian accent, she put the tragedy down to “She was vegetarian – not strong enough!”  Our contention in this space previously that “stronger is better” aside, we are not making a statement here.  Although . . . 

Sectional riders are occasionally used as “mules” by TDA staff and the participants themselves.  When Jonas left us in Khartoum G. bought his shoes and headlamp.  This time around, Tom from Montreal is leaving, but he was will return in Nairobi to complete his journey to Capetown. When he does, he will have items for at least a half dozen participants, including a  cot from MEC for Lenore to replace a thermarest mattress she is unhappy with.  It is hard to source or repair forgotten/broken/stolen items when constantly on the move in remote areas.  We consider ourselves lucky.

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Tribal Lands

Section 3: Tribal Lands

TDA calls section 3 – Addis Ababa to Nairobi – Tribal Lands.  The section features diverse changes in scenery and riding conditions: from plateau to desert to savannah. We returned to rolliing countryside after escaping the city to arrive in an area interspersed with alkaline lakes, including Lake Koka where we shared our camping area with magestic Marabu storks that stand taller than Lucy. We are now near Lake Langano camping with ostriches and wart hogs at the Abisata-Shula National Park. We’ll visit the wildlife sanctuary at Yabello before leaving the country. 

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Campsite guests

The border from Ethiopia into Kenya at Moyale will mark the beginning of Kenya’s Dida Galgalu lava rock desert. The scenery will be desolate as we complete the current 8 day run, the longest of the tour, with a rest day in Marsabit, Kenya. That market town is set on the slopes of an ancient volcano.  The route then descends again into the arid lands that are home to the Samburu people and their herds of camels and cattle. From Isiola, the route traverses the western slopes of Mount Kenya, before crossing the equator in Nanyuki, which is a short day’s ride from Nairobi, East Africa’s largest city.  

Lots to look forward too. Thanks for anticipating it all with us. Here are a few shots from beautiful Ethiopia.

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Ready to please

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Hauling firewood out of Blue Nile Gorge

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“Dung cakes” used as fuel

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Cows trample teff to liberate the seeds used to make injera.