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African Queen

01 June 2011

by Dave Mitchell 

Some smart-arse once muttered, "it's not the things you do in life that you come to regret but the things you don't". So I quickly say "Yes" to John Etherington when he invites me on one of his Escape Adventure trips through East Africa. Now, I'm genetically reticent about commercial gigs, but am easily seduced by the promo blurb... and the reality that I will probably never cycle Africa under my own steam. John's route follows the back roads and trails over sixteen days, from Nairobi in Kenya through Tanzania to Dar es Salaam. Apart from the Economist's ramblings and the occasional wildlife skit, I am blissfully ignorant of Africa and eager to make amends.

From Nairobi we ride to Amboseli National Park. Giraffe, zebra and gazelle cruise across our path. A support vehicle named Turtle carries our camping kit. It's like a Swiss Army knife with a foldout kitchen, slide-out pantry, pop-up roof tent and hidden attachments too numerous to name. John was a motor mechanic in a past life - a handy skill on these remote trips. His sidekick Mandy is in charge of food, while a Masai dude named Nash drives the Turtle. Lucy from London, Lynda and Glenn from Canada and myself complete the rogues' gallery.

At the edge of the Amboseli we swap our bikes for the security of the Turtle. It's safari time. Herds of zebra, wildebeest and elephant trundle around beneath the omni-present Mount Kilimanjaro. Hippos wallow in the muddy water. As we make camp for the night, Kili' shakes off its cloud layer and the moon rises over its snowy slopes. Magic. Leaving the park we ride along the cracked surface of the dry Lake Amboseli. Far ahead, a mirage of water evaporates as we approach. At the edge of the lake, giraffe glide towards the mountain - their bodies shimmering and heads bobbing above the heat haze. That evening we clamber up a craggy ridge behind our campsite. Behind us the sunset plays on Kilimanjaro's snow capped summit, below the villagers herd their cattle and goats into thorn bush corrals for the evening. Later, we visit the village and are treated to a demonstration of the Masai matchbox - a stick of softwood spun against some hardwood with dried goat dung as the primer. Be nervous Monsieur Bic.

With land and property a Masai man can have up to four wives. A few wealthy menhave black Chinese or Indian-made bikes. They look hilarious as they pedal the dusty tracks between villages, with spears strapped to the top tube and their mates perched on the carrier. John told us that he had previously sold Mandy for thirty cows, but the deal was annulled when discovered she was no longer a teenager. We managed to sell Lucy for fifteen cows but had to lie about her age.

We head for the mountains, and eventually roll across theborder into Tanzania. Green backs validate our visas. Before dawn we're off to the Ngorongoro crater, climbing through lush green rain forest into the mist shrouded tops. Descending the crater we emerge from the mist to discover a lost world. A soda lake of pink flamingoes lies to the west. Zebra and wildebeest cruise the crater. A herd of hyena eye some hippos moving from one mud hole to the next. Time slows as a cheetah stalks a gazelle. She accelerates and turns it before tripping it up. Her three cubs assist with the final kill. To complete the show, we spot a couple of rhinoin the distance as we prepare to leave.

Continuing south we hit the Masai Steppe. Baobab trees with their oversize trunks and leafless branches dominate the savannah. They look like they have been uprooted and planted upside down. We travel beside a railway that services the sisal industry. Disused water tanks and filler nozzles remain, not used since steam trains plied the route. The sisal industry almost folded with the advent of synthetics but is now thriving with the renaissance of natural fibres. Our camp on the Pangani River offers a hot shower and stunning sunset while monkeys jump between treetops. Crocs lurk unseen in the river.

Leaving the plains, we climb to the Usambara Mountains and the town of Lushoto. Grand old German colonial homes look somewhat out of place amidst thehumble local dwellings. We huddle around the campfire that night as the temperature plummets. The next morning we walk the surrounding hills, finishing up at a local school. On a previous trip John had organised some desks to be built for the children, and he continues to support the school in numerous ways. We're treated as guests of honour with the whole school turning out to sing and dance for us.

The next day we ride singletrack between the villages. Navigation is confusing but John manages to track down a Benedictine Monastery. The Fathers have been farming here for over half a century- showing the locals how to produce high-value crops instead of just maize. We leave loaded with bottles of wine, cheese and sacks of nuts. Soon we're plummeting down steep 'n' gnarly singletrack. Local kids cheer us on - I imagine that it's a World Cup race. Lucy scores the best winger and the biggest cheer. Miraculously the altar wine survives. After fourteen kilometres of descent we are delivered to the heat and sweat of the plains. It's time to head for the sea and the historic town of Bagamoyo, once a major slave and trading point. Our shady camp beside the white sandy beach is idyllic. The water is luxuriously warm. Spotting the fishing boats returning with the day's catch, we head to the market to secure dinner.

We are called to prayer at the nearby mosque at an ungodly hour the next morning. From Bagamoyo, we follow the slave route down the coast to Dar es Salaam and the end of our journey. It's sad to recall the vast numbers of slaves who were marched along this trail and then shipped to Zanzibar to be sold. A sobering reminder of the real world we are about to rejoin. Asante sana Africa.

Nitty Gritty

  • Escape Adventures organises a variety of trips. Our journey costs about NZ$3000 including just about everything.
  • Trips are run over the cool, dry season - from June to January. 
  • Emirates Airlines provide the most direct route from Australia/New Zealand to Nairobi/Dar es Salaam. Costs around NZ$2300. 
  • Myths of African travel abound. Most are unfounded. Large animals are awe inspiring and rarely dangerous. The local food is organic, fresh and healthier than many western diets. Drinking water isn't contaminated by chemicals or pesticides. Biting bugs are localised and seasonal, or can be defended against with repellent and mosquito nets. There are good clean campgrounds and English is widely spoken.