7 September 2015 by Justine
Cycling in Tanzania – November and December 2014
We are in Kigoma and we are celebrating our 1 500th kilometer and the end of our first month on African soil. We deserve a day of rest, which we spend on eating chip-mayai (omelet with potatoe chips), tasting all Tanzanian brewery products (with original names such as Kilimanjaro and Safari) and questioning the locals about our next itinerary. Asking the same question to a dozen of people, receiving several different answers and using a fair amount of judgment and pure guess to draw a conclusion seems to be the only way to get any kind of info – from the price of tomatoes to the number of kilometers to the next town. Turned out two days were needed in Kigoma.
The first day, three people from the southern port confirmed us that there was a boat leaving the next Wednesday to Zambia. Boating to Zambia… Renting a cabin on the honorable MV Liemba and spending two days on the dock, drinking beer and enjoying the view of the crystal clear blue water and the hidden white sand paradise beaches, all the way to the end of Lake Tanganyika. But the second day, the next departure from Kigoma appeared to be in three weeks (…). We then decided to go for our plan B and cycle along Lake Tanganyika as long as it’s possible on local paths, and then ride inland. We managed to cycle for three days, sometimes directly on the shore, crossing fishing camps under the palm trees, and other times, riding impossible rocky slopes through the jungle. At the end of our third day, some locals warned us about the craziness of the road we were going to take to cross inland since to road close to shore was ending with the magical national park called Mahale. Since our last day had already been sporty, we wondered out loud what our options were. Turned out there was a cargo ship passing by the very next morning at 5 AM and going few ports further south where a nicer road could take us inland. Too good to be true? I did not believe it until I saw the boat the next morning, and I did not believe we would make it until my feet touched the ground in Ikola, the next day. Too skeptical you say? You should have seen the boat.
How could I explain this… In a boat in the shape of a giant squash, eighty people squeezed in, along with just as many tones of goods and building materials. At five o’clock sharp, it’s still dark and the beach guard tells us that we can sleep another hour. At 5:45, he screams at us to hurry up. Without even unloaded our paniers, he effortlessly grabs our 50kg bicycles and make them stand on boards of wood placed on his boat. There it was, the crazy boat, passing by, not really waiting for us and not turning off his motor. Our beach guard, standing on the edge of the boat, fronting the waves, is pushing the small boat with a long stick, in order for us to reach the cargo ship. Six o’clock. I’m standing on a foot-width wood board with my 50 kilo bicycle on wavy water, thirty meter away from a noisy chaotic smoky pirate boat: “JP, I’m gonna fall. There is no fu**ing way I’ll make it till there” (…) Too busy imagining myself fall in the water with my brand new bicycle and all my belongings, we already reached the big boat. Four powerful hands on the boat reached for JP’s bike, then mine, then for JP’s hand, and then for mine, all to be thrown in a small wooden boat, itself passenger in the giant squash. I then realize that my mouth and eyes are wide open, and have been since the moment we ran on the beach, fifteen very determining minutes ago. I look around, trying hard to relax my body and face, and to pretend that this sort of experience isn’t new to me at all. 160 eyes are shamelessly staring at us, including the captain’s. The day rises and soon the heat is barely bearable. With no shade to hide under, the only way to keep our mind fresh is by looking at the water. So tempting, so clear, so blue… So perfect. “Are you going to swim?” asks me a young girl named Darleen, “Oh I would love to (and won’t, I’m thinking, because I’m wearing my stupid beige underwear instead of my big black ones). But I think my friend will”. In the same second, JP, without any hesitation, takes off his hat and his shirt, and jumps in the water as the boat slows down in front of a fishing village… There he goes. “Why don’t you go, Darleen?” “I’m scared of the crocodiles” she says, looking at the sandy bottom of the lake that we can see, at least ten meters down. I scan this crazy boat equipage, watching them watching JP swim, all with a spark of envy but also fear that all African have for wild animals in almost every situation. They envy the nautical agility of the White blond Jesus, but not as much as me – as a women, swimming with huge black undies and a t-shirt would have already been audacious. There is no way I’m jumping in the water with my beige underwear. Might as well take everything off. (…)
The weight of the heat becomes as heavy as the fear of running out of food, or worst, water. But with the only toilet being a whole in the floor at the end of the boat, surrounded by ten sitting men, our stomach suddenly shrinks and our thirst, disappears. Not because we need to do your thing surrounded by strangers (…), but because we need to reach the back of the boat by jumping the lateral beams, four meter over the head of the women and child sitting in the bottom of the boat on sacs of cement, rice, flour and sugar, OR by walking along the edge of the boat crowed with people, keeping your balance by holding on the head and shoulders of the passengers. And so, we count the minutes for the sun to get friendlier. Shitting in the dark, even surrounded by strangers isn’t too bad – no one to watch the track of toilet paper behind the boat. But getting to the back of the boat though, is a bigger challenge. I can still see JP’s face, working so hard on holding back his natural calling… “I’ll go tonight. When it’s dark. Can’t… Shit… Like this”. And then, after the sunset: “Arrrggg…. Can’t… Reach… The back of the boat…. I’ll go tomorrow morning”… And so on, until we actually got to Ikola. As soon as we anchored, JP jumped in the crystal clear water, swam to the shore, and ran on the beach, soaked wet, bare foot, with his long blond hair in his face, asking people for a toilet without slowing down his pace – I’m sure the people of Ikola still talk about our remarkable arrival.
On the second day of our boating journey, a pleasant surprise was waiting for us. As the passengers and loads of goods were getting in and out as we stopped here and there along the shore in fisherman villages and camps, the happy sunburned head of David appeared. David is the third bagpacker we have met since we left Entebbe five weeks ago. Watching us getting aboard as the sun was rising, hairy, serein and comprehensive, David thought we were missionaries. Can’t blame him for that… We realize we have few things in common: he, like me, walked Compostela’s way on the Camino el Francès in Spain, and like JP, he got hit by a crazy driver in southern America. Isn’t that great? He wasn’t on a bicycle, though. He was… Living in Costa Rica, building the house of the guy behind Skype. Nothing less.
After the second day, we finally reached the port of Ikola. Excited by our presence, the beach kids did what they all did to us every day we spent along that lake: they surrounded us with laughs, signing the Asian-African song called “give-me-this-give-me-that”, and played a game consisting of discreetly poking our hair and clothes, and digging sand under the poles of our chairs for us to fall (…). Surprisingly, it was the first time for David to experience such phenomenon, even after three months traveling in Kenya and Tanzania. It was also the first time for him to be elsewhere than in cities and national parks. Indeed, cycling through rural areas give you a more intimate overlook of any country. We left the next day on our wheels, while David was struggling to get the right info about either the next boat to Zambia or, in the other case, the next bus to Mpanda. We then thought to ourselves… How lucky are we to go cycle through those dry mountains for two days instead of being waiting for a crowded old smelly bus!
After our crazy adventure on Lake Tanganyika, another one was waiting for us: Katavi National Park. After spending a whole summer in Northern Saskatchewan in Canada, reassuring people that cycling in Africa did not mean we would necessarily encounter crazy wildlife like lions, even though we would cross national parks on our bicycle, I realized I was trying to reassure myself. Seeing a male lion with its classic giant hairy head three meters from you makes you feel alive while at the zoo. While on your bicycle in the middle of nowhere, it makes you feel alive AND stupidly vulnerable. I believe I reacted very well in that situation: I kept calm, closed my eyes, and whispered JP to keep on cycling, too scared that he would insist on taking pictures like in Uganda, fifteen meter away from massive elephants. In fact, he was literally peeing his pants – which is a way smarter reaction in that circumstance than closing your eyes while riding a bicycle on a dirt road full of tricks like sand patches, slippery mud, rocks, tsetse flies and cement waves. After reaching back civilization 85km past the entrance of the park, we realized the road we took wasn’t the busiest one, explaining why we only saw about three trucks and four cars using that road. But wait – I’m going way too fast… First, we got stock in Mpanda because of a French-Cantonese-Swahili-English spoken Congolese man called David and John, his Chinese employer who got us drunk on local cognac…
We reached Mpanda in two days of easy cycling from Ikola. Jumping back on the saddle after two full days on the water in the giant squash boat felt great. In Mpanda, we treated ourselves with a 15$ bran new double-bed room with a fan, a spotless toilet and a small TV. As we were washing our clothes in the back of the building in huge plastic bins like every washing day, a young men approached us in French. His name is David, he is originally from Congo but moved with his family in Kenya, and then China. French is his first language, but is fluent in English, Swahili and Cantonese. He’s interpret and supervisor for John, a Chinese man who’s in charge of the Tanzanian activities of a Chinese mining and forestry trading company. John is the most easy-going Chinese man we ever encountered – as we talk, we have a crazy four-month cycling trip in China already planned. Only the plane tickets are missing, and a Cantonese phrasebook. John spends his days either at the lodge’s restaurant, drinking Coca-Cola and talking on the phone, or walking his daily 1000-steps in the parking lot while talking on the phone (…).
Back to Mpanda. Once again, we have big hopes for this city. This time, we are looking for bicycle chains. In order to keep our full system healthy, we are changing our chain every thousand kilometers, or when it’s 75% stretched according to our chain tool (not all cyclotourists would agree with this picky maintenance, but we will for this trip, with great success). Our dear Surly is as standard as it could, it shouldn’t be a problem – NOT. All we can find are single-gear and six-gear chains. We have a nine-gear chain (our rear derailleur is a nine-gear, and our front derailleur, a three-gear, for a total of 27 gears). After 48 hours spent for: 1) Finding Internet; 2) Confirming that we won’t find any nine-gear chains in Tanzania; 3) Finding an online bike shop that will ship in Africa – but only in Zambia amongst Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi, our actual and next location; 4) Finding a guesthouse on our route in Zambia that accepts to receive our package; (…) we finally could arrange the shipping of some bicycle chains with the help of Gilles, our forever trip manager (Merci, Gilles!). Amongst all these tasks, the first one being the most challenging (…). Indeed. Somehow, we observed that many times, especially in Eastern Africa, finding Internet becomes a real mission. It all starts by finding someone that knows what is Internet: “Internet? I don’t know” but then… “Facebook?” “Yes, Facebook I have! You need data for your cellphone?” “No, I don’t have a cellphone, so I need a computer with Internet, to check my Facebook” “Oh…. Then I don’t know. But I think I know someone who knows” “Ok, let’s go!” And there we are, walking in the streets of Mpanda, with the confidence of people under cover (I would like to precise that finding Internet would have been as easy as a fart with a smartphone, by simply buying a SIM card in every country, and then data or airtime, but we had purposely decided to unplug ourselves for this trip and to live on the edge, at the mercy of the African craziness) (…). Fortunately, John and David were there to direct us to the right people and we finally found a decent connexion after checking on two different so-called Internet Café with each two old computers that weren’t connected at all. Every time, new people directing us to the next place by drawing us a map of the town or by escorting us. Apparently, in Eastern Africa, it is ten times easier to find weed than to find Internet! So after accomplishing all of our tasks, John decided to pay us to the treat in order to celebrate our new friendship, and also to demonstrate the Chinese way to party (…).
From that evening, all I remember is the sound of John’s bowels, liberated from the poisonous mix of Konyagi (Tanzanian cognac), local beer and grilled pork meat. Good thing he could open the door of the truck on time! Whose truck is it, anyways? No idea, but its tank is as dry as a dry prune. David needs to buy a 2$ bottle of benzene to get us moving back to the lodge, one block away from the bar (there are about ten streets in Mpanda). Back at the guesthouse the next morning, JP is scary pale. We go check on John who’s probably still sleeping… But we see him, sitting in his “office”, in the restaurant, eating his boiled egg, chapatti and tea like any other morning… “John? What… How are you feeling?!” “Good. You guys have a good sleep?” “Yeah… I guess. I feel like shit, though. I can’t believe you’re still standing after last night…” “Last night was nothing. Only few bottles. Usually, I drink twice as much with Chinese man.” (…) JP, who’s usually the drinking master, hurt and nauseous, gives in and goes back to bed, with a bucket besides him. For one night with a Chinese man, it took JP two full days to recover: “it’s probably because of the bicycle”. Then, we were ready to go. Our chains will be waiting for us in five days in Mbala, Zambia. We are now in Mpanda, Tanzania (soooo confusing), all we need to do is to cycle 375km south. But first… Katavi National Park.
With the extraordinary Internet connexion in Mpanda, we manage to get some information about our next route. Apparently, Katavi is: “isolated, untrammelled and seldom visited” and is “a true wilderness, providing the few intrepid souls who make it there with a thrilling taste of Africa as it must have been a century ago”. Wow. That sounds like an adventure. Katavi is Tanzania’s third largest national park, lying in the “remote southwest of the country, within a truncated arm of the Rift Valley that terminates in the shallow, brooding expanse of Lake Rukwa” (www.tanzaniaparks.com/katavi.html). In its 4 471 km2, 20 500 zebras, 17 300 topis, 15 500 buffalos, 15 200 impala, between 2 700 and 6 500 elephants, 4 000 hippos, 5 000 warthogs, 3000 giraffes and thousands of different antelopes are actively contributing to the Circle of Life. Oh, and 750 hyenas, 200 lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs, wild cats, serval cats, caracal, crocodiles… And a green mice (www.kataviparks.org). That park sounds as wild as it could be.
There are two roads to cross the park and both connect Mpanda to Sumbawanga. The main road splits in Sitalike and merges back in Kisi: one diverts on the East side (97km), the other on the West side (87km). According to our very reliable map (…), the main road seems to be the one that curves on the western side, with about 45km in the park – that’s the one we took. With no services before Kisi, we are counting on a small village at the end of the park to spend the night. It would be wiser to stay in Sitalike, thirty meters away from a 300 hippo crowd chilling in the river all day and grazing at night, but after reaching Sitalike at a steady 25km/h with still Konyagi perfume in the air, we felt really good and confident – damn you endorphins.
We decided to stop at the headquarters of the park to take a break – the first one of the day – before crossing Katavi’s crazy wilderness in one stretch. A non-smiling armed lady ranger comes to greet us as we build our chairs: “Where are you going?” “Sumbawanga” “Have you paid the entrance fees?” “No” “You need to pay” “Are the cars paying the fees?” “No” “Why should we pay the fees, then? It’s the main road”. Our logic irritates the ranger: “Then, you have to leave the headquarters now and stay on the main road. You stay here, you pay” (…). Staying sounds so tempting! On the other hand, if the ranger’s priority is the make the few crazy cyclists pay the fees, I guess there is nothing to worry about with the wildlife… So we decided to hit the road right away. 40km… Pfff. Can’t be that bad (…). Wrong.
The first 10km were alright, until the road got worst, and worst. I read on the Net that that road would most likely be “floated and difficult” in this time of the year. “Difficult” seems right. We saw about three cars that day, no pedestrians and no cyclists. Just us, the grasslands, the bushes and the creatures. We saw a lot of antelopes and hippos right at the beginning, but then, it was few kilometers of bad road without wildlife (at least, of what we have seen…). When cycling in a quite constant landscape, it’s easy to fall in a meditative state of mind. So there we were, cycling on that dirt road in a mix of savannah and bush-forest-like environment, not being too attentive, when we both saw (and heard) something moving in the bushes after only one hour in the park. Five meters from us, there was a male lion. JP slowed down so that we could be side by side, and without stopping cycling, he whispered with huge eyes: “Have you seen…”. No need to finish his sentence. I did see the damn thing. I grimaced, grinding with my teeth: “JUST. KEEP. CYCLING!” Like a child watching a horror movie, I looked away and waited for a nicer scene (while cycling). JP eventually gave me more details. Apparently, the lion looked at us, annoyed but mainly indifferent by our presence, and walked away like lions do, with attitude and confidence like saying: “I’m the king, dudes. Just look at my hair…” Nothing more, nothing less. I still think of all the multiple possible scenarios that could have happened. We talked about our encounter with experienced people wildlife-wise, and many agreed (including rangers) that at that time of the day (it was 10:30AM), there was no chance for a lion to attack us – it’s too hot. As well, there was enough food around, so no need to jump on something that looks (and smells) weird. We later on met an Austrian biologist who confirmed that a lion was no harm if putting our foot down – I would like to see him five meters away of a lion with only a bicycle as a way of transport. But after what happened to poor Katherine Chappell in The Gauteng Lion Park in South Africa (“American Women Killed by Lion Had Gone to South Africa to Help Animals”, by Jethro Mullen, CNN, June 4th, 2015), I’m having a hard time believing that biologist.
After our encounter, we cycled like maniacs. We still had thirty kilometers to cycle to exit the park, and the noon heat was just about to greet us with a warm hello. As we were getting a bit tired, the road was getting worse. Then, again. In the bushes – something isn’t right: “JP! JP! À gauche!!! (JP! JP! To your left!!!)”. Fifty meters from us, five beautiful giraffes are chilling and doing their thing. As we stop to take pictures, they pose. I can’t contain my excitement: “Wwoooowwww!!!!!!” And there they go, awkwardly running like giraffes do. Being that close not to notice them makes us wonder on how many animals, big and small, watched us without being uncovered…
It’s now twelve o’clock and the heat just got to our safari party. As we entered a muddy section, other guests showed up: tsetse flies. These flies are comparable to our Canadian black flies: when they bite, they fly away with a piece of flesh. Also, they’re not fancy enough to get slapped. They have to be mashed – mashed like a potato. They arrived from nowhere, without invitation, and they are crazy on JP. Rapidly, we button up our cuffs and collar, and we squeeze the repellant bottle everywhere we can. JP, personally attacked, put on his head net. We cycle as fast as we can, but they follow us (tsetse flies are known to follow cars up to 60km/h). JP’s back and head are covered with tsetse, and so are my black front and back panniers. They don’t bother me too much it seems, though I get bitten every five-ten minutes. Tsetse flies… Are those carrying the Sleeping sickness?! This is no place for a nap!!!
We are now as close to the exit as to the entrance, and we still didn’t see any cars today. JP rides few hundreds of meters in front and I do my best to keep up. At some point, he pulls over to drink water, trying hard not to get flies inside his head net (without success). With sweat dripping down his face, he says: “there were elephants, just now. They had just finished crossing. I almost ran into the last one… ”. Again, he almost didn’t see them, too busy cursing those damn flies. It is now confirmed: this park is fu**ing wild.
We assume that we are about to exit the park, and we need a break. We are physically and mentally exhausted. Poor JP has stomach problems. Thirty tsetse flies just won a first class seat for a very graphic number two. Can’t take a break with those stupid flies, so we build our full-mesh tent, put the mattress on, and then our chairs. Curled up but free of flies, we eat our fat cakes without a word. There are some nasty sounds not too far from us, in the forest: “What the…” without finishing our sentence, arrives a big truck – the first we see in the park. We look happy (not too sure why), but the driver is concerned. By his window, he yields: “what are you doing?! Keep going! Get out of here!” and he continues his way. That is the wisest thing I heard today.
And then we saw the sign… “Thank you for visiting us – Travel safe”. Katavi is now behind, but now what? The park isn’t fenced. And the vegetation is exactly the same on the two sides of this imaginary border. Can lions and hyenas read? Somehow, I’m having a hard time imagining them checking the sign and staying on the “right side” of the park… “Oh! Can’t cross here! I’ll get in trouble!” So we will cycle another 15km before arriving on top of a small pass.
It is getting dark, but with that little mountain in-between the park and us, wild camping sounds safer. Even better, there are three man standing there, probably waiting for a transport. One speaks English: “Where you come from?” “Mpanda” “…” The two others drop their huge machete and make that typical Eastern African sound… “Aaaaeeeiiihhh!!” Mpanda is 95km away, including a good 45 k’s of bad dirt inside a park full of scary animals. Even for the locals, that road is considered dangerous. “You’re lying” is his only answer. “Where is the next village?” “Kisi. 20km” “And where do you go sleep?” “Home” and they point the forest. Well that’s not an option… “Ok, thank you!” And we keep on cycling until sunset. We finally find an open spot with an old fire pit. Reassured by some human activities, we boil water for an emergency dry food package. We left home with twelve of those bags and we used each and every one in very specific conditions. Tonight is the night for wonderful pad Thai. With only 1L of water left for both of us until Kisi, using 250ml of water for a 20g protein meal is perfect. It is fresh now, and completely dark. In a second, all the tsetse flies are gone, as suddenly as they arrived (…). We are set for bed when we hear something outside the tent… “Go look!” says JP. “Hey! Isn’t there some weird rule that says that guys should go check first in those circumstances?!” “I didn’t know you were that kind of girl” “… Damn it”. But there was nothing. Just us two, our courageous bikes, the moon and the stars. Day 43 on African soil is almost done. And tomorrow is another day… Zambia is only 200km away!