Monday, March 29, 2010

Mbeya, Tanzania

"Deep in the Tanzanian bush, David Robinson, the 53-year-old son of
baseball legend and civil-rights hero Jackie Robinson, has exchanged
his uneasy compromise with U.S. culture for a tribal adoption, an
arranged marriage, and an economic crusade. Through the farmers'
cooperative he founded, he is using the world's second-most-valuable
natural resource—coffee—to spur social change" - Brett Martin, May 2005.

I first came to know of David Robinson and his work through my friend Brian Hyland who produced a short documentary about him. Since we are only in Mbeya for a brief moment, I will not be able to make the quick trip into Mbeya's surounding countryside to visit Mr. Robinson's farm. But my thoughts have been with his story, which for me has accentuated the beautiful countryside we have had the pleasure of riding through the past few days.

The rolling hills have been smooth and fast the last 3 days as we near the end of our safari through Tanzania. Tomorrow we cross the Malawi border.

Riding the pavement can be fairly mindless compared to the tricky dirt roads - so there is a lot of time for the mind to wander.

Earlier today I was thinking about the overland trucks which are our lifeline, and realized that I haven't really described their role in this crazy journey. Firstly we each have a locker on one of the trucks - that locker is essentially our castle. Yes we either sleep outside or in a hotel room, but at the beginning of the day our possessions go into the lockers for safe keeping, and are there waiting for us at the end of our ride. Second, the trucks are our kitchen, which comes with a chef. After serving us a a hearty breakfast one of the trucks speeds to the designated lunch spot to set out the day's spread. At the same time the other truck rushes to the next night's camp to start preparing the camp area and get ready for the dinner rush. The pressure is on for these trucks, because as the riders are experiencing their own challenges during the day - sometimes the same challenge is even greater for the trucks ... Northern Kenya for example. Those roads were sometimes barely walkable, never mind drivable even for the most resilient of trucks. The trucks are also responsible for finding and storing our very thirsty water supply. And when it's all said and done the trucks are also the last line of defense for riders who need a bail out from the day's ride.

These trucks are not robots, so the people who operate them are really the ones who are our lifeline. Although there have been a couple of times when one of the trucks has not been at its expected rendezvous, there has always been an effective back-up plan.

So as I gave my daily thumbs-up to the passing TDA truck earlier today, I reflected on how much easier its existence makes a bike tour of this magnitude - and I am grateful. I am also even more in awe of those individuals around the world who embark on adventures like this - solo!!!

Lake Malawi - here we come!!!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Iringa, Tanzania

Odometer - just over 6000 km.

This past week was all about the bike. It was us and our bikes against the forces of corrugation, deep sand, loose rocks, technical climbs, hairy descents and armor-piercing thorns. And yet we all rode safely into Iringa yesterday, to celebrate a well-deserved rest day.

Towards the end of our ride into town we rode onto the first paved road we've seen in 600 km. I couldn't help but stop for a moment of reflection in the quiet of the Tanzanian bush. Secretly I will miss the dirt roads. They try your patience, they abuse your bike and they hurt your bum, wrist, arms and shoulders; but there is never a dull moment - unlike the long stretches of flat pavement expected in the weeks to come.

Everyone seems to develop their own strategy on how to deal with the terrain. A popular strategy is avoidance, which can be accomplished by looking for single tracks that run parallel to the road and used by the pedestrians of the bush. These paths are usually smooth and packed and are a welcome relief from the roads. They also can be fun - like a carnival ride is fun - as you wind and roll through the bush as fast your nerves will permit. The trick, however, is not to follow a trail that runs away from the road. As a few riders can attest, instead of having to backtrack (which would be the smart thing to do) - trying to cut through the bush back to the road can be a little prickly, while keeping the fear of being lost at bay.

The day's end this past week looked like a tire-patching class, as most of the riders sat around fixing flats and exchanging war stories from the day's ride. The bush is hot so activity is kept to a minimum once riders get to camp. A seat, a spot in the shade, and something to munch on is all that is needed after the bikes are prepped for the following day. And then off to bed after a big supper and a quick prayer to the puncture gods.

Watching your surroundings is usually not the best idea while riding these roads. Your priority is pedalling and keeping your eyes peeled for the right line to follow, as well as all available bail-out options, in the event that you choose poorly. But it was hard to avert your eyes for too long from the landscape we encountered on our ride from Arusha. Picture the plain's bush you might see on a show about African animals, and then suddenly you are climbing through dense jungle you might expect in Central America. We have also started to see our first of the mighty Baobab trees(sometimes described as a tree that is planted upside down), just one of many 1000's of tree types making up the canopy of southern Tanzania. The rolling hills, or long flat stretches of bush were speckled with little villages inhabited by people who enjoyed exchanging their traditional greeting "Jambo" as we sped past and they went about their lives.

Life in Africa tends to move a little slower then we are used to in the West. It is a comfortable and satisfying pace for those who live here and yet can be frustrating for us TDAers, who want our service to be quick and efficient. As I finished the last paragraph, I realized that we are all here to experience life on this continent, but yet we are on a fairly tight schedule, and very often do not have the time to reset our internal urgency to African levels - maybe we are missing out part of the Africa experience.

The TDAers converged on "Shooters Pub and Cuisine" last night. Between us, a contingent from the local Peace Corps and a handful of Iringa residents - the crowd proved overwhelming for the bartenders and kitchen. Nevertheless as the pub's stocks and servers' patience dwindled, the party kicked into gear. Dancing, bar games and good old-fashioned party banter made for a fun end to a not-soon-to-be-forgotten week.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Half-time Synopsis

A few years ago I started to read "Dark Star Safari" by Paul Theroux. I put the book down right about when he got to Nairobi because I was bored by how unfairly negative I thought he was being about Africa. My ignorance formed my unrealistic opinion. I stand corrected and look forward to re-reading his book.

So the tricky question is: is Africa really in dire straits? Are African people living unhappy lives?

From my point of view, Africa is an amazingly beautiful place, but the lives of its people look grim as does the future of its beautiful land. But am I making that assesment based probably on the sense of civility, order and hygiene expected in the West? Maybe it's not fair to make judgement based on my experience as a fleeting bike-through tourist.

One Kenyan travel book I read recently suggested not giving anything to the people I meet along the way. This prompted a discussion on whether hand-outs by past travellers may be the reason why some people along the road, especially in Ethiopia, have been so aggressive. It certainly makes sense. If someone receives some money, or a pen, or a book, or some food or anything from a random tourist, I would imagine that their expectations would be set accordingly. If this might be true on this scale, is it the case on a much bigger scale such as international aid in all its different forms and sizes?

Yesterday I met someone who had flown in to visit a TDAer for a couple of days. He had a black eye around which were set of teeth marks, compliments of one of 4 people who mugged him soon after his arrival in Nairobbery.

An hour later another TDAer told me how earlier that day he and a few others were in a taxi van when the driver stopped, ushered out all of the locals, and aggressively demanded more money from the TDAers, while holding the to door to the taxi closed. They managed to get out, with a bit of force and not getting back the fare they had already paid.

These 2 stories left a bitter taste in my mouth yesterday and added to my negativity, and also reminded me to keep up my guard, which I think I had begun to let down as I have become more comfortable in Africa.

I suspect that my blog has refected my negativity towards the people of Africa, but in the same way that one good shot in my usual poor golf game keeps me coming back, I have met a few people along the way who remind me that life might be good in Africa, and that the future may be bright after all. Africa is a very beautiful place; it emits a mysterious magnetism that is hard to resist even after being stoned - that's with rocks not drugs.

Since I suggest that aid may not be helpful for Africa, you may question the money I am raising for SELF. SELF is an organization that doesnt simply give solar energy to those in need. SELF requires that those who receive their help play a part in the design and installation. In some cases SELF may even ask that the recipients pay for the solar panels through micro-financing. I still beleive as I did before I started this tour that aid is more constructive when it is earned, or the recipient is accepts it with good intention and a sense of accountability. I believe that SELF offers that kind of aid, and is model of how others should help.

The rest of the world should help by letting the Africans define their own lives and shape their own future's. Aid is good, but countries that give should be careful the reason for giving is not primarily self-interest. Ubuntu is global.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jurassic Park

Actually, the Ngorongoro Crater.

After eating some well marinated Warthog for supper last night I decided to forgo today's steam and check out the Crater.

There are 2 types of "Wow". Wow when you are with a group of people and want to emphasize something and the Wow, that you say to youself when something really bowls you over. Well, after driving through some fairly thick forest up the outside of the crater, seeing the inside of the Crater for the first time is the latter "Wow" for sure.

Also, the whole experience was creepily a little like Jurassic Park - starting with the front gate , where the road all of a sudden turns to a dirt road dissappearing into thick green jungle, and then there is this 280 square kilometer bowl of wild animals. The bottom of the crater is just a flat green grassland, so the animals are all just right there - nowhere to hide - its amazing. Within 30 minutes, I'd seen 4 of the big 5 - as usual, the elusive Leopard was nowhere to be seen.

The pics posted above should help paint a better picture.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Arusha, Tanzania

"How's Obama??"

A question I got quite often from the very proud Kenyans. Some were asking how he's doing as President, while others seemed to be asking as if the prez and I might hang out every now and again.

The ride into Nairobi was like playing a video game, where the wrong turn of the control could over!! The rules of the road (or lack there of), and the huge volume of fast moving traffic made for a dicey day on the road. Vehicles have no problem deciding to pass even if they can see the whites of the eyes of the oncoming a bike doesn't even count, but in their defense they sometimes have the common decency to blow their horn before they run you off the road. Scary day, but thankfully no casualties on the bike. That's the good news. The bad news is that later that day a TDAer got hit by a bus when walking across the road - I suspect probably because of looking the wrong way, expecting traffic to be on the right side of the road(you drive on the left side of the road once you cross into Kenya). Once again scary, but after spending the night in the hospital they are a little beaten up, but on the mend.

Nairobi was a good day to relax, treat ourselves to some greasy food, and do some shopping, after our north Kenya stint. One rider did have his laptop and cell phone lifted while he was eating in a restaurant in what looked like a secure shopping mall...I guess that's why some call the city - Nairobbery. And making it more understandable for the sudden increase in the presence of security - big walls, electric fences, security guards - a vibe I know well from South Africa, and perhaps will see more of for the rest of the trip. Why was this not the case in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia? - less to steal, or scarier punishments for criminals, or maybe a little of both?

The day after Nairobi was a fun 160km ride of rolling hills to the Tanzanian border, but was not free of a little unexpected excitement. In our never ending search for smoother riding surface's - a habit that probably started in the Dinder days and which we perfected in North Kenya - freshly paved road is hard to resist. When I say fresh, I mean, wet, juicy tar. It made for a smooth alternative to the gravel service road we should have been on, but a lot of petrol was needed to get the tar off the bikes and bods. And wet tar is slippery. There were a few falls, and one trip to the hospital.

The events of the that day prompted an evening discussion on the various forms of casualties of the TDA - (injuries, sickness, theft etc.) and how many riders would actually have signed up for the TDA knowing how big the risk it is of becomming a statistic. Hard to say, but I think we all agreed that you can significantly reduce the probability of something bad happening to you by taking extra precautions - but what fun would that be and certainly easier said sitting around drinking bottles of Tusker.

We crossed the Tanzania border early yesterday, where the Americans and Irish were charged $100 for their entrance visa's, as opposed to the $50 everyone else were charged - which prompted the question by one person..."what did the Irish do?". I guess it must go without saying that/what the Americans did to deserve the inflated rate...

We enjoyed a 120km ride from the border over the foothills of Mount Meru into the town of Arusha which is considered the halfway point for anyone making the Cairo to Capetown trek. Also lurking is Kilimanjaro. I say lurking because her presence is massive and close, but I have yet so see her distinctive snow covered peak which has been hiding in the clouds for the last few days. A small group of TDAers left the tour for a couple of days to go and see Kili's receeding glaciers - I look forward to comparing notes with them from my Kili ascent a couple of years ago. Still one of the most amazing experiences I have had!

Since we are halfway we have 3 rest days. Many have continued the adventure, by going on safari in the Serengeti and Ngorogoro crater or climbing Kili, while a few others like myself have chosen to stay in Arusha with our feet up. Its a great time to take care of administrative stuff(laundry, internet, bike service, shopping etc). Personally, I have shamelessly checked into a nice hotel, where I plan on sitting in the steamroom, when I'm not watching crappy TV.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nanyuki, Kenya

Odometer is just over 5000 km

We just had a 1300m climb into the foothills of Mount Kenya. What a great ride and yes we are back on the was hard to resist hopping of the bike and kissing the pavement yesterday morning.

Mudfest lived up to expectations and Northern Kenya certainly lived up to its reputation as being the toughest part of the TDA - at least thus far. Many a time I wondered if my trusty Nissan Pathfinder would have been able to make this journey and I concluded that if she had, I would probably be selling her for parts in Nanyuki right about now... she is much better off cruising the highways of North America.

Since my last post the rain has been relentless, making the corrugated, muddy roads that much more exciting to navigate. For the record...corrugation sucks!! Think of riding or driving on a road built of horizontal ditches about 3 inches deep and a foot wide...recipe for some spinal realignment no matter what vehicle you are in. Add some rain, a couple of drainage rivers and some pond-size puddles and you have an adventure on your hands.(I did find myself waist deep in one puddle while still sitting on the bike)

One night a few of us pitched our tents in a very dry river bed knowing that it hadn't rained in that area for 3 weeks, and once again disobeying Murphy's Law or just commong sense. We were lucky that the regional drought lasted through the night, but the sky opened up first thing in the morning and, amazingly, only minutes after the tents were taken down, the river was running strong. Easy lesson learned!

We have been lucky to experience Northern Kenya in its rawest form. The tar road is creeping quickly towards Ethiopia thanks to the Chinese who are not only funding the road but supervising its construction. I don't think many more future TDA riders will need to consider bringing mountain bikes because of this section.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Marsabit, Kenya

The drops of rain started at around 3.30 am ... the dilemma is always: do I get up and put the fly on my tent, or will this small shower just pass. One thing that this trip is reminding me is to always obey Murphy's Law, so I dutifully got up and took care of it, and remembered to take my laundry off the line - saving myself a week's worth of moldy riding clothes. It's 9 hours later and the steady rain has just subsided. This is important because we are in northern Kenya, where there is no pavement. The 4x4 pickup was not able to make it 200 meters from camp this morning - the rich, red African mud mixed with a bit of water makes for a juicy porridge that could make riding conditions after this rest day quite adventurous ... we shall see.

Getting to this rest day has been a test of patience, bike skills and bum calluses. Day 1 from the border was a nice tune up - fairly smooth dirt road with a little corrugation to keep us on our toes. Day 2 started with a continuation of prior day's road, but each rider knew that the lava fields were coming. The last 25km of loose rock lining tracks created by years of use by trucks and 4x4s, was sort of like skiing a mogul run ... you have a couple choices. One option is to put your head down and power straight through. But like a mogul run, not a wise choice. Or you can pick your line, and then navigate through the rocks down the chosen path. I continue to be amazed by human resilience, as the body takes an amazing beating going through this terrain, but I am now even more amazed that the bikes are up to the challenge as well ... knock on wood. Day 3, yesterday, is considered the hardest day of the TDA and it did not disappoint. Hot weather, lava rock, corrugation and some climbing for 85 km. I think that this year's TDAers had the advantage of the Dinder experience(reference previous blogs), which prepared us mentally for yesterday's conditions. Although it was a bit grueling at times, the last 3 days were quite an experience - fun, as I joke with some others. I have to admit that there were plenty of times when it was far from fun, but whenever non-productive thoughts started to take over, all I had to think is - wow, I'm riding a bike across Africa!!!!!...or throw on my iPod and listen to some Bruce. And when it's all said and done, no matter how fast I rode or how hard the day was, rolling into camp, getting off the bike and sitting in an almost meditative state absorbing the day's experience and feeling the body relax makes it all worthwhile.

A new country, and a rest day,there is only one thing to do ... eat drink and be merry. Lots of new foods and drinks to try - Tusker beer, samoosa, meat, Ugali and Irio for starters.

Time to go and give the Fuji (my bike) some TLC and get her ready for the possible mudfest to come. I hope to be able to post pictures when I get to Nairobi, next weekend.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Cease the Stonings!!!

Reporting from Moyale, having just crossed the border into Kenya.

Odometer reads 4400 km.

As we have approached the Kenya border, the roadside antics have started to subside. I say this knowing that just today a TDAer stopped to fix her chain and was approached by a young Ethiopian man who professed his love for her. Her failure to respond to him, earned her black eye after he punched her in the face.

A few days ago, a TDAer hit a person who randomly ran into the street. After the TDAer was thrown from his bike he was surrounded by the town's people, who threw his bike to the side and tried to kick and hit what end, we will never 2 other TDAers arrived and between the 3 of them, they forced themselves out of the crowd to safety...scary.

Although there were only a handful of physical injuries at the hands of the crowds of children who "cheered us on" as we worked our way through the country, our group is glad to be free of hearing:
"you, you, you, you..."
"Where are you go?"
"Ferengie(sp?)" Amharick for foreigner
"Give me your money"
A lack of response to the any of these sometimes resulted in one of the expletives that George Carlin said should not be said on TV...where they learned these choice words - who knows?
If you have ever seen Homer Simpson grab Bart by the neck...then you know what I felt like doing to the kids who demanded money and then threw stones, when no money was presented...but instead I'm sure that I may have taught them a new swear word or 2 for next years riders.

Since Addis, we have had a couple of fairly hectic mountain stages, as well as the start of the rainy season we expect to see a lot more of in the weeks to come. Riding in the rain seems to be a lot more fun then camping in the rain, at least thus far....that may change as we start the dirt/lava rock roads of northern Kenya. Our descent out of the mountains, has taken us from a lush(almost rain forest feel in some places) to a semi-arid bush I know well from Southern Africa.

My blogs have probably painted the picture Ethiopia as a giant laxative inhabited by unfriendly people. Yes, however, of the 3 countries we have crossed thus far, Ethiopia has provided the richest experience. If you look past the illness and give the people the benefit of doubt(Perhaps I would expect money, if I had nothing, and some blinged up foreigner passed through my village) - the food and drink has been amazing, the landscape has been pretty, the riding has been a lot of fun (I am partial to hills), we have enjoyed a diversity of campsites and hotels.

This is an unexpected opportunity for an update. The next update may not come for a couple of weeks when we get to Nairobi. Northern Kenya, by reputation, is the most hostile of all the places we will pass through...hostile because the road is worst we will experience, it can get very hot, it is very remote and there is always talk of bandits(I suspect, this is just, fireside, whiskey fueled talk).