Tanzania on Two Wheels
Tanzania on Two Wheels
6 April 2017
We arrive muddy and exhausted to a pitch-black campsite. Although my suitcase isn’t massive, navigating the rocky descent into the camp in darkness while carrying it isn’t easy. But neither was cycling through Arusha National Park today.
I’m exploring Tanzania with 11 other like-minded travellers on a condensed version of the Intrepid Travel ‘Cycle Tanzania’ adventure. Over five days, we’ll cycle 112 kilometres, guided by our charming leader Justaz Molel and accompanied by a hard- working team of guides, kitchen staff, bike mechanics and drivers.
Guests spend their first night in the bustling town of Arusha, but tonight our pitch-black accommodation is Mkuru Training Camp – a tented lodge that acts as a research and education centre. As for the lights? Well, the plan was to arrive when the sun was still shining but we found the cycling more challenging than expected.
Arusha National Park is full of gravelly, dusty hills that some members of our group (myself included) could only tackle by foot while pushing the bikes. Then there were the zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and warthogs, and it’s impossible not to stop and take photos. And then there were the park wardens snapping photos of us. Our group was the first official biking assemblage to cycle through the park and these awe-struck rangers would appear out of nowhere, smartphones at the ready, to freeze this unusual moment in time.
So, we did take our time, as anyone would cycling through a national park where wild animals roam free. But now, having arrived at Mkuru, we’re all keen to dump our bags, shower and eat. After settling in, we feast on a hearty beef and vegetable stew and chat to Silvia Musi, the project manager of the camp. She explains that workers at Mkuru work closely with locals to help develop skills and knowledge, with a focus on using materials commonly found in that area. The latest project, for example, involved local women designing and manufacturing belts using cowhide; a material easily available to them.
Cultural experiences such as this are all part of the parcel. The first day of the tour saw us stop in at Tengeru, a village that’s a 30-minute drive from Arusha, even before entering Arusha National Park, where we were taken on a community walk through a family-run coffee plantation.
The Tengeru Cultural Tourism Programme was established in 2004 and today shows thousands of tourists around the coffee farm each year. Because it’s a community programme, there are no government taxes and all the profits go back to the people involved. Since the project’s inception, the proceeds have funded the construction of schools, farms and bridges, provided more clean water, and contributed towards the planting of many new groves of trees.
Our second day in the saddle is easier on the thighs; a mostly flat ride from Mkuru to the Masai village of Losirwa. Sometimes we cycle past nothing but shrubbery, gaining speed as we gain confidence. We slow down in villages to watch the goings-on and the locals watch us back, stopping whatever they’re doing and following us with their eyes until we disappear into a cloud of our own dust.
Eventually, we turn off the flat road to tackle a few kilometres of hilly rock-strewn terrain to reach Losirwa. We reach the village hot and sweaty but soon forget about any discomfort. We have arrived just as the men have returned from the plains with their cattle, and this calls for a traditional Masai welcome dance.
The Masai warriors begin in a laidback fashion, moving sedately, and chanting timidly as more people from the village gather. More men join the circle and the small jumps transform into huge leaps, while the chanting grows louder and louder.
Then the pitch changes with the ladies’ turn. A woman with a contagious smile and sylph-like limbs grabs my arm and pulls me into the chaos, adorning me with a heavy beaded collar-like necklace that I’m to move while shrugging my shoulders. It all ends in a manic flurry of hollers and huge movements. I replay the extraordinary evening in my head over and over again.
Of course, you can’t travel to Tanzania and not venture out to see wildlife. We cycle the Lake Manyara loop the next day, starting and finishing in Mto wa Mbu, a busy village home to over 100 tribes. We glide through small communities, passing thatch-roofed homes, before coming out into the massive grassy plain beside Lake Manyara. With just sparse shrubbery growing here, we can see far into the distance. Wildebeest trot in no particular direction; zebras sluggishly munch on grass; graceful gazelles track into the distance; the flamingos simply dawdle around the lake. After lunch we jump into four-wheel- drive safaris and explore Lake Manyara National Park and it’s here I spot my first wild lion.
Our accommodation for the night, Panorama Safari Camp, includes a number of igloo-style huts, so even sleeping here is a unique experience. I wake early for sunrise the next day before we set off on a slow and steady ascent that draws on for three kilometres. I drop out halfway and hop in the support van before jumping back on the bike to coast down into Karatu, a lively town that’s used by travellers as a base for exploring the Ngorongoro Crater.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a wild immensity of dense woodlands and sprawling savannahs, but most people come to see Ngorongoro Crater, which is legendary for its rich, copious wildlife.
We see an endangered black rhinoceros in the distance; a lone hyena attacking the unwell gentle giant; two lions basking in the midday sun. Zebras, gazelles, wildebeest and warthogs are everywhere.
On our final cycling leg, I take my time. After all, I have no idea when I’ll have the chance.