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Now, back to our little bike trip.
We have mentioned previously in this space that there is no “hand holding” for participants on the part of staff here on tour, so we ought to have been suspicious when tour leader Tallis gave us a pep talk after the group returned from various safaris near Arusha – allegedly to ward off what he called the “mid tour blues”. We suspect that his timing had more to do with the fact that we were about to embark on a 7 day run with some impressive stats: 934 kilometres, 439 of them on dirt/gravel/sand, 8180 meters of vertical, 3 nights with only a bucket shower and 1 with no water for bathing at all. We were warned that we are now in a malaria zone, that tsetse flies are an issue (they were -think horse flies in appearance and bite – not as painful but with potentially greater consequences), and to be very cautious of street food because of typhoid and dengue fever outbreaks. On the penultimate night, the one preceding 2150 meters of climbing before the end point in Mbeya, the bars adjacent to our camping area would blast music until 3:00 AM, exactly 1 hr and 50 minutes before the local Imam was to join the roosters in announcing that it was “go” time once again. Tallis was doubtlessly anticipating issues.
We are pleased to report that we both completed EFI (every f#*king inch of this section – a goal which is important to a handful of riders for the entire Cairo to Capetown route), but it wasn’t easy. We certainly have been tested in Tanzania.
Oh . . . and it was magnificent!
At least once a year we cycle to the family retreat “Mountain-View”, in the Adirondacks. A recently introduced weekend ferry service between Les Cedres and the Valleyfield Islands has made this into a pleasant ride of 128 km, all but a short section of it paved. We always make sure to have someone available to take us to our dock across the lake when we arrive to avoid the last 8 km to the cottage. The specific reason for this is that the road surface is gravel.
The 4th day of this stretch was also a 128 km ride, 100% of it sand and gravel. As in the case of the cottage ride ferry-to-dock service, a lot of forethought went into making sure we would be able to handle this section of the tour (along with a longer stretch of dirt upcoming in Namibia). It began with acquiring Trek 920 bicycles, which are quick enough on good surfaces, but also rugged and built to fit 2.2 inch mountain bike tires for traction when conditions demand it. Inflated to a low 35 psi, they allowed us to plow through sand and absorb bumps at speed on the downhills. This full immersion on gravel has taught us to trust our equipment in the same way that we trust the edges of our skis and snowboard on icy surfaces, surely making us better all around cyclists. At least that’s what we would have us believe.
The 7 challenging days began in Arusha with 2 century rides. The terrain consisted of lush rolling hills with stands of corn, sunflowers, bananas, and endless processions of school bound children in electric blue uniforms. On day 2 we chased down the distant volcanic Mt Hanang, Tanzania’s fourth-highest mountain. We came up even with it by lunch, then watched it fall off behind as we pedalled on to Singada. We pinpoint these landmarks on maps ahead of time, then take satisfaction in conquering them – obstacles between us and Capetown.
On day 3, a right turn precluded us from sticking to the tarmac and riding through the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma (great trivia question). The longer paved option would have meant an extra day of riding. Instead, we met with gravel and proceeded alongside the Rungwa and Usungu Game Reserves over the next 3 days. Once again lucky riders had giraffes cross the road in front of them. A reliable spot to see hippos was a bust, but we did see baboons and vervet monkeys. As for the natives, other than subsistence farming, wood (for fuel) collecting and child rearing there seemed to be a lot of hanging about in the small villages. As usual, there was no shortage of children. At times it seems that every eligible woman has a baby hanging off her back or front wrapped in a blanket with its head bobbing about.
At our campsite on the grounds of Biti Mayanga School, we watched children in their uniforms tilling the land with hoes as an after school activity. A supervising teacher explained that this is part of their practical education. He told us that there are 10 teachers for the 1200 students, and that there is a shortage of books and sporting equipment. We did our best to compensate by bringing out the frisbee. It works every time – a hundred or more squealing kids swarming like black flies until darkness falls and the strange white biking people retreat to their tents with their toy.
The best was saved for last: an epic day of riding into Mbeya.
In his book Kapp to Cape, author/cyclist Reza Pakravan sets out to bicycle from the northern tip of Norway to Cape Town in 100 days (in pursuit of a Guinness Book record). He followed the same route as the Tour d’Afrique through northern Kenya, but describes the picture perfect highway we were met with from the Kenyan border at Moyale to Isiolo (north of Nairobi) as “the worst road in the world”. He takes more time to describe the hardships encountered on that stretch than any other in the entire 18K km journey. We had a first hand view of the conditions he was talking about. It is still there for all to see, right next to the pristine strip of tarmac we were lucky enough to ride on.
That was only a few years ago. Had there been rain, our 439 km of gravel here in Tanzania would have just as trying as Pakravan’s ordeal in Kenya. Still, it was difficult enough to make the comparison fair.
The final 35 km of gravel was on rough and steep surfaces. Right next to this goat path a new road was being built. We cycled on the dirt surface beside the construction in progress to Chunya Town, the point from which the southbound route to Mbeya is already paved. Rumor has it that the paving will eventually lead all the way back to that right turn we made on day 3. An impressive array of equipment, African workers and a handful of Chinese foremen are hard at work as you read this, taming the Tour d’Afrique route for future editions.
Back on pavement, day 7 culminated in an epic climb to Loleza Peak overlooking the Rift Valley at 2656 meters. The views from the summit of a region which has been described as the “Scotland of Africa” were the best of our trip to date. On full display are the ridge of the East African Rift and the valley floor below, which eventually will become a sea and split the African continent. We took plenty of time to savour it, then raced 20 km downhill into Mbeya for a well deserved (at least that’s what we would have us believe) rest day.
Check out TDA’s wonderful video below featuring Lenore. Thanks for reading.