AFRICA on a bike

AFRICA on a bike….                                                     By Andrea Livingston

It is a very exciting and extraordinary thing to be ‘invited’ to Africa.  You would never say no.  The crazy thing about this trip is that I have vivid memories of discovering this tour 15 years ago, when scouring for cycle holidays way back when they were new.

Wow, someone is cycling Africa.  A cycle tour of Kenya and Tanzania must be epic I remember thinking. It caught my imagination back then with visions of cycling red earth under big skies and ogling at the worlds most treasured animals with the biggest grin.

How bizarre,15 years on, I meet the inspired people behind this exact trip…John & Mandy of Escape Adventures and suddenly find that vision will be fulfilled.   I had to pinch myself, me with the biggest grin.

As a Travel Broker specialising in Adventurous ‘not found in a brochure’ itineraries, I have a built-in antennae for genuine, authentic, quality experience. I am going without expectation having not visited this part of Africa and not wanting to overthink it…hoping to be WOWED at everything.

Now there is a big distinction between travelling through a country and journeying through a country.  Brochures are full of companies offering ‘adventures’  and ‘unique travel experiences’ and yes they are unique – in the context of our daily lives, but often not that unique in that every operator is offering the same deal.   The difference between these two experiences is enormous, and I don’t wish to be part of the travelling bubble of mollycoddled masses being fed recycled statistics, herded into shops or restaurants and marched around static displays or ‘staged’ tourist ventures.  Watching a country through a vehicle window and being fed an individually wrapped boxed lunch is not my idea of adventure or unique experiences.

Freedom to roam, wind in my face, dirt under the fingernails, itchy bites, camp toast, rich coffee, busy markets and happy handshakes from chance friends.  Being kept awake at nights by wild animal noise – in fact I don’t want to sleep for fear of missing something. I want to ride every day to appreciate the sense of vastness of Africa, the smell on the wind, the dryness of the dust in my lungs, the chance of wild encounters, the majestic and commanding landscapes, the enormity of the African sky…. and the total insignificance of me.    I got everything I wanted…and more.

So here is how a mobile cycle safari rolls:

16 days – 12 cycle days of 4-6 hours of riding a day.

The cycling was blissfully dynamic and varied – perfect for the intermediate MTB’er who loves off-road challenges.

From 80kms of BMX sand track (actually it was a main arterial road!), to 25 kms of thick wet mud slides both ascending and descending, 40km of fast single track- but mind the thorns. 15 kms of dried up lake bed,   and 100km of seal (the only time) was sublime and fast, a very scenic perspective of the famous Rift Valley.  We rode endlessly in the Usambara Mountains – 1800 high we were then down, down via stairs, maze fields, water ways, mud roads, via private crops and  river walk ways. Scooting through villages and schools, stunning village folk as we sailed past their back doors, the children in awe of strange bikers – taking chase and challenging each other’s speed with great hilarity.    We wave and shout JAMPBO!!  Habri?..Insuri!  Hi, how are you, fine thanks!.  Always such small pleasure’s in just being able to say Hello, yes we are interested, and thank you for asking.

How special is it to be laying your head somewhere new every night in a new land.

Starting with just one night of Luxury ‘glamping’ in Nairobi, we set out on our mobile camp safari leaving this staged bush-bedroom far behind us.  Only once did we every stay at a commercial camp site. No two nights the same – as varied as the landscape was.

A night spent camping on a working Ostrich Farm amongst established trees and abundance of coloured birds. We get to marvel at these enormous birds in close proximity but decline the offer to buy a few discarded feathers.

After 80kms of challenging BMX-style sandy roads we arrive at a secluded Masi camp who only ever host word-of-mouth small groups, and the bikers are part of the  privileged few.  Our hosts had a small fire/boma ready for us.  The large table is set for twelve famished MTB’ers (in masi colours), a canvas covered shower box, and buckets of heated water race backward and forwards from fire to shower stall in haste  – all this effort just for us.

We camp inside the enormous Amboseli National Park famous for the largest concentration of Elephant in Africa.  The fencing is to keep people in rather than to keep the animals out.  Gun-toting fence security are designed to make humans feel protected. A fascinating Game Drive here revealed Cheetah, Hyena, and an impressive array of elephant herds dwarfing the abundant Wildebeest and Zebra on the plains.

An afternoon was spent riding into an extraordinary and vast mirage.  A dried up lake bed crisp under the tyres, crackling the sunburnt crust as we roll.  The orange colour is vivid and our distant vision melts in the heat to create an assumed watery lake on the horizon.  Large animal foot prints reveal  the journeys of the wandering owners before us. Are they too looking for the lake?   Surreal and magical.

Dry-sand riding takes some effort, and a bit of skill. It’s a good challenge and takes a day or two to master for unfamiliar riders. Everyone improves as the days go on.  We start enjoying the creeks and deep river beds we encounter that require a good run up and tenacity to stay upright and make it to the other side…with hilarious results.  Collapsed bridges and 8 ton trucks embedding themselves regularly all add to changing the terrain and thus increasing the bike challenges to cross the landscape.

The best and most guarded campsite has no road leading to it, nor a worn trail and certainly not a signpost.  Standing on a rock formation with a 360 degree view above our small huddled camp, was the heart of a majestic landscape I was seeking, under that enormity of African sky.  I am rooted to the spot in awe. On one side Kilimanjaro commands its respect, to the other, lush Tanzania beckons and the view in between depicts life on the forever timeless plains. Young herdsmen bringing home their animals from a day’s grazing some 4 hours away.  Goats, donkeys, sheep  and dogs all know their way home with little coaxing.  It’s a gradual procession of life witnessed at sundown by very spoilt bikers. We were treated to a visit to Masi tribal homes to meet the children, wives and extended families the next day. Again we bikers are the only white folk to be hosted in this area.  The whole experience could start to feel biblical if you allowed it, but now at this point, at last we were humbled by time and tradition.

Onward to the lusher surrounds of Tanzania.

Thankfully just one night at a designated campground (for necessary access to Norongoro Crater).  Here the travelling masses were laundering, swimming, and recouping from the day in their vehicles. Small gatherings of tourists comparing their gadgets.  Safari is a heaven for the gadget-magnet outdoor enthusiast.  Endless hours of conversation  on how to be minimalist, but carry every essential item ever likely to be needed – or just talked about.

It was a rather smug feeling rolling into a place like this on our bikes, the heads turn for a moment to see the commotion of weary riders coming in from a day in the dirt. Smiles drop and eyes avert quickly – and you know you just won the Kool-kid stakes.  Transport of choice!

Across the Rift Valley and into the Norongoro Crater, where the days rain and low cloud never gave us the vista we sought, but it provided such a wonderful micro-climate of light for photography.  The steely weather over the crater lake lit the flamingos up like a sea of pink lamps.  The dry grasslands were a little damp – and the lions seemed all the more visible once you got your eye in.  A jaguar sighting, a Jackal, young Vultures, Spider monkeys, as well as the Big Game of Hippo, Buffalo, Lion, Elephant were all part of the game-drive reward inside this massive crater. You could smell damp animals on the wind.  The Serengeti Plains loomed over the far Rim.  It was storybook.

Then it was off riding  tiny walk tracks through tall grasses, minding the water trenches and trying to be on snake-alert (!). The River Camp was a highlight with its chorus of bull frogs through the night, croaking in the long reeds around our camp, hopefully alerting listeners to any creeping crocodiles and snakes that frequent the area.   Again our gun-toting hosts kept vigile as we slept.  It was humid amid the long grasses, but again a spot I wouldn’t have missed with its array of insects and birds…and hidden dangers.

Onward across the Masi Steppe and up into the Mountains we rode, some honest gradient to keep us on our game. A night at 1800 metres, where extra blankets were welcome.  We camped in rain forest surrounds where early German settlers had created a small paradise in the cooler climes of the Usambara Mountains where we based ourselves for 2 nights.  Here we visited a local school and participated in their re-forestation project (planting 100 seedlings) and also purchased a stack of school text  books from the local stationer to gift to the senior school.  No  gifts from home were allowed except a 2015 calendar with 12 pictures of the students from the 2013 bike group visits. Not only did they not have a current calendar but seeing posters of themselves was really compelling for them.  Nice one.

The recent rain fall in the Mountains had turned the main town– Lesotho, into a thick greasy mud park.  Again a few riding skills required to stay mobile and upright, but no hope of staying clean!

After clearing the Bakery out of all the hot handmade samosas (Africa style) we were off up into the rabbit warren of Village trails to find a few lookouts over the Steppe.  We were having better luck picking lines than some of the motorbikes getting bogged in the mud, and often quicker. Even uphill!

Highlights would have to be chasing our guide down cobbled walkways, stairs and maize fields offering up some of the best downhill single-track entertainment. Then a race down the main dirt road, jumping potholes, ruts and swerving motorbikes and people to stay in touch of each other…laughing and swallowing flies as hard as we could go on an endless downhill to lunch.

Out of the cool of the Mountains and back in the heat of the lowlands we chugging toward the coast and get our first glimpse of the Indian Ocean.  We check out Sadaani National Park – one of the few where you can observe wild animals interact with the ocean.  We cycle, tentatively, close together  as safety in numbers prevail.  We camp wild inside the park, and enjoy a wonderful beach swim in place of a shower.

Cycling now through small Fishing Villages as we head toward  Bagamoyo, the sea is filling up with old Dhow fishing boats and the Arabic architecture turns our attention to the history of the Spice Trading era.  There is much activity and noise (including reggae beats) down at the wharf and the fish-markets of Bagamoyo.

We roll onto our seaside cabins in a wonderfully cool garden setting having completed 16 days on the road.  Time for several cold beers and reflection of the journey.  I have a pack full of filthy clothes, testament that I was ‘out there’.  I am exhausted and all I want to do is turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.

The hardest thing on the whole trip, was to resist the urge to take photos. Especially the people.   Every turn of head was a National Geographic picture waiting to be taken….and putting the camera between you and that moment was cold.  We had no right.  Learning to just breathe in the memories was a rewarding and liberating lesson.

I invite you to join one of the best Cycle Adventure Holidays out on the market.

Guides, bikes, food, camping and logistics  – ALL unequalled.

From someone who has been in the travel industry 20 years, I think it’s a winner!!

The writer travelled to Africa courtesy of WILDSIDE TRAVEL and experienced Africa on a bike courtesy of ESCAPE ADVENTURES.

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