In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle
11 minutes reading time (2209 words)

Stage 7, part I: Harsh Trucks but Kind Strangers….

Stage 7, part I: Mbeya to Mikumi. 3– 10 November, 512km

"You are now on a major trucking and bus route all the way to Arusha and the lack of shoulder and the strong wind is probably going to make it hairy. The tarmac has melted and the overloaded trucks have smudged it into treacherous tracks. As you probably know, the truckers and buses could not give two shits about a cyclist on the road and will not even consider accommodating you, especially in Tanzania”…. The words from Andres Perez, a seasoned motorcyclist in the region were with me as I set off from Mbeya, with approximately 800km to go before Dar-es-Saleem and the prospects of a week’s R&R on the beaches of Zanzibar.

Nonetheless, I was in good spirits after a successful return to Zambia for Cranleigh School’s second ‘Beyond Cranleigh’ trip, followed by a relaxing couple of days with Mick Selby and his family in Mkuzi.

 

clean t-shirt ready for the ride north        3 things I miss about the UK: humour; good journalism & a pint of proper ale...

I hadn’t made much effort to find a stoker from the UK for this leg, partly to see how I coped on my own and also in the knowledge, that, if Andres was right, I would be better placed to control Thandie without extra weight to balance on the back. There would be several occasions where sliding off the road was the only option as buses raced each other along the highway.

Other than getting caught in a mini sand cyclone that must have snapped my flag (photos below), I enjoyed a productive first morning, enjoying a better than expected road with more down than up. By lunch (steak and chips with a coke for less than a quid), I had clocked up more than 60km and was ready to rest for most of the afternoon. Seeing a sign for a ‘riverside campsite soon afterwards, I turned down the dirt track, not sure what to expect. 3km of downhill dirt led me to a deserted field, right next to the river. A young teenager turned up out of the bush but spoke no English. Despite the beauty of the setting, the prospect of having no conversation for the remainder of the day, combined with no visible security, held little appeal. I returned to the road, partly to try and find my flag that I had only just realized wasn’t with me. I pedalled on, hoping to find somewhere safe to camp with some company, before dark. Unlike many long distance cyclists, I was quickly realizing that the prospect of my own company for dinner, was even less appetizing than the rice and tomatoes I had to cook!

 

Thandie with flag (straight after mini-cyclone)... and without later in the day...

The afternoon then took at turn for the worse when one of my panniers broke as I dropped off the road to find water. With dusk approaching, I made a temporary fix using a cable tie and carried on, feeling tired (95km on clock) and a bit apprehensive about where I would sleep. 3 hours later I would be on a high, enjoying a relative feast with Leonard and his family.

Leonard was sitting outside his house under a beautiful mango tree as I cycled by, chewing the metaphorical fat with friends. I sensed an immediate warmness in his greeting ‘Jambo, Mzungu’ and after a 5 minute explanation of my trip, he invited me into his house, turfing out his son Alan from his bedroom to accommodate me.

Leonard worked as a mechanic in the Serengti but grew up in his village, a non-descript hamlet 20km south of Igawu. He was currently on annual leave, spending time with his family (He had another wife in Arusha). He also farmed onions and proudly showed me around his farm before dinner. It was a lovely evening and I would hear from my host regularly as I headed north to check on my progress.

 

lunch for a quid                          dinner with Leonard & family

 

I left early the next morning at the same time as him – he was off to China to see a friend! It was great to see anecdotal evidence of the emerging Africa middle class, making money legitimately but still being very much part of their own community.

The second day was tough but also productive, with 6 hours in the saddle needed to complete 80km thanks to a stiff headwind and sustained, low grade climbing. The 23km to Igawu, my breakfast stop, took more than 2 hours. Enjoying chapati & chaai (pancakes & tea) out of the sun, I was approached by Joseph, a sparky young man in his 20s. He was the first Africa that I had met since Jo-burg to have seen a tandem before: he had accompanied a Dutch cyclist to Mbeya four years previously! His energy and good English led me to offering him a ride and he stoked Thandie for 10km onto the next village. Joseph told me that he was of Somali descent. Sadly, like many of his compatriots, his family had been forced to leave Somalia. He had relatives dotted around Africa and the world and proudly showed me 2 fresh $100 bills that a cousin had sent across to him from Washington.

I enjoyed his company and learning about the region but was disappointed that he asked me for money when we finished, especially given his display of wealth shortly before. I made a mental note to be very clear about whether I would pay for any future stokers’ bus ride home.

 

Joseph                                                                  Martin & family

I camped that evening in similar circumstances to the previous night, warmly welcomed into the household of Martin Kkombi, just north of the dirty trucking town of Makambako. A retired truck driver turned pig farmer with 13 children dotted up his old route from 3 concurrent wives. His Makambako wife could have been his daughter. Nonetheless, his kindness was genuine and I questioned whether it is our place to judge what we might consider morally unacceptable back home. He proudly described his old life and current truckers as ‘harlots’.

We feasted on one his pigs with ugali (maize meal) for dinner. Without any stomach upsets for 3 months, I confidently dismissed his offer of a fork as we munched away with our (right) hands. 6 hours later, I was regretting it, with a forced dash to his pit latrine crawling with cockroaches. I was happy to be on the road early the next morning, seeking solace behind several remote bushes on the side of the road.

Despite thoroughly enjoying the trip since Mick’s Selby’s farm, it was effectively 4 days since any Western conversation. Of course, I didn’t come to Africa to hang out with Westerners but I was discovering that, every few days, a chat with someone who can readily sympathise with your situation can provide a big mental boost.

During one of the pit-stops, I was therefore delighted to get messages from two such people. A great university friend, Tom Blathwayt, was informing me that he would in Dar at the same time in 10 days time and Mark Ghaui, a Tanzanian farmer I had met in Malawi was inviting me to stay on his farm, some 110km further up the road. I reckoned that these 2 messages increased my average speed by 5km/h. Desptite the ‘runny tummy’, the prospect of a cold beer and good food with Mark pushed me on, through the Sani Hill forest and several villages.

After sheltering from a big storm for a couple of hours at 80km, I made it in good time to Mark’s farm – his family had set up a tourist campsite (kizonogla farm lodge); and it was a pleasure to get off the busy road for a couple of days of R&R. It turned out to be relatively easy to find. Mark’s mum had said to look out for the overturned bus at the entrance, from an accident earlier in the day. Miraculously, no one had been seriously hurt  but it served to reinforce that this wasn’t the safest road to take a bus along! I concluded that I would rather be on bike! I tried to work out the value locals put on their lives in a recent economic cycle blog.

 

mirror essential for safety....     enjoying the early morning light

I enjoyed some home comforts and excellent food – they had a french chef at the campsite, one that many overland trucks used as their stopover between Dar and Malawi. Two 22 year old Australian motorcylists, Lochlan and Warren were heading in the opposite direction and I spent a fun day with them, fishing with Mark and exploring the local area. Warren’s family were originally from Zimbabwe before the vice-president took their farm. He was on a voyage back to his home country after 7 years in ‘exile’. I tried to imagine what must be going through his mind and made (another) mental note not to take for granted so many of the things that we inevitably do back in the UK.

 

hailstorm from Mark's Farm....                Relaxing with Warren, Mark & Lochlan

From Iringa, some 50kms up the road, the shoulder widened and cycling proved less hazardous. I camped at a lovely site on a river, just North of Iringa, coincidentally meeting up again with Jan & Anika, a retired dutch couple, that I had met on my first night at Kizongola. They were doing a 20,000km loop from South Africa where their daughter was living and hoped to drive all the way back to the Netherlands in 2013.

We cooked together and Jan agreed to cycle with me the next morning after a couple of drinks. I did the first 50km solo, buffered by a strong wind that knocked me off the road twice, until they caught up with me. We did a fast 20km downhill, sharing our teaching experiences – he had been a university lecturer and student ‘coach’ in Chemistry before retiring in 2010. I suggested he visit Cranleigh to lecture in 2012!

 

Jan - oldest stoker so far             Ed, Mark's cousin who gave me the flares (in the foreground) to scare off animals!

I said goodbye to them, hoping that I would see them again, and carried on contently. According to my GPS, I had only 20km to go before a campsite recommended to me a couple of days previously in the magical ‘valley of baobabs’. The sun was getting hot so I was looking forward to an afternoon’s rest. The campsite turned out to be mythical and, after doing 2km down the dirt off the main road, I found out from a helpful local that the only campsite was a further 17km down the track in the xxx national park. Given the heat, I decided to rest there for lunch and Alan kindly invited me into his house. I chatted to him and his elder brother, both with excellent English who interpreted for their father. We eventually ascertained that the campsite I was hoping to stay at was some 30km towards Mikumi. I reluctantly carried on, but at least energized by their kindness. That kindness was magnified some 90 mins later: as I rested by the side of the road around 15km along the road, they appeared. They had set off in pursuit after finding my camera in their living room. What kindness and honesty, especially given that the camera was worth several months worth of wages for the average Tanzanian. I thanked them profusely and insisted on paying for their petrol they had used (they had been searching on their motorbike for more than ½ hour).

After a restful & quiet night on the banks of the Ruaha river, I pedaled the final 60km to Mikumi, arriving at lunchtime. I had again picked up a charismatic young man at my breakfast pit-stop, who pedaled with me ot Mikumi : Samson had been to boarding school in Uganda. Unless you were super rich or politically well-connected, he informed me that there was little hope of getting a good education in Tanzania, even for a relatively well-off family such as his. His comments would be backed up by further conversations and visits to schools that I made in the country. He was good company nonetheless and I enjoyed lunch with him in Mikumi before he got the bus home.

Samson, after helping me get to Mikumi

I was now in Mikumi, ready for a day off before hitting the national park, armed with some British Army flares, given to me by Mark’s cousin at his campsite 4 days earlier. Enough to scare off a lion? I guess there would only be one way to find out…

 

 

Stage 7, part II: Beasts & Beaches in Movember…
Stage 6: A hitchhiker's guide to Northern Malawi &...

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