Africa Cycle Tour – Tanzania

We entered Tanzania without much trouble and then drew some money at the only ATM in town, which is just to the right of the bridge when you cross over from Malawi. (If you come this way, use it – there isn’t another for 100 kms!)

After cycling up a short hill into the border town we stopped at a bar/lodge and had our first ever Tanzanian beer, the aptly named Kilimanjaro. I then tried to source a simcard from one of the many roadside stalls outside. As usual, it needed to be registered against my passport, which is always a bit confusing and took a while. Once done they gave me the simcard and it was the wrong size, which means I couldn’t use it but had to buy it since it was registered to my name. I would have to get it cut down to size somehow.

Fortunately, I still had my Malawian simcard which was still working via data roaming so I was able to use that to work that night. We finished our beers, left the lodge and headed off towards a nearby campsite that was listed on the app iOverlander. I later discovered we should have stayed at the lodge since they are usually cheaper in Tanzania than camping!

The campsite turned out to be very basic, with no electricity or hot water, but we stayed anyway since we had nowhere else to go. The caretaker gave us two warm beers and we cooked some dinner around a rickety table while I got work done. The time change from Malawi means the sun stays up an extra hour in Tanzania, so it felt quite late when we finally got to bed.

Uphill to Tukuyu

We awoke early as usual at 5 am but it was now pitch dark, so Romain slept in a bit longer while I did a bit of work. After a quick coffee, we packed the tents and headed off. We knew from checking on the travel app Mapy.cz that it was going to be a long, uphill day. The countryside fell away beside us as we climbed higher and higher up the Tanzania escarpment away from Lake Malawi (or Lake Nyassa, as it’s called in Tanzania).

The road rose and wound along high mountain ridges with deep valley’s dropping away on both sides, providing us with beautiful vistas across fertile land lit by the rising sun. We stopped for a break and a drink in a small town where I managed to get my simcard cut to size but was unable to source any airtime to top it up.

After a brief snack, we continued on and made it to the small mountain town of Tukuyu by early afternoon, where we planned to spend the night. We found a lodge I had seen on the app iOverlander which gave us a room with two double beds for only 15,000 Tanzanian shillings (Tsh) – about $7! The entire experience reminded me a lot of my time cycling in India, not just because of how cheap it was but the way the lodge was set out and especially the toilets. Just like in India, they use Asian squat toilets with a bum-gun and always have a rickety shower located directly overhead.

After checking in I went to find some cold beer, which caused a bit of confusion (few people speak much English in rural Tanzania ). As I would learn over the next few weeks, it’s uncommon in Tanzania for people to drink beer cold. While the bars usually have a fridge or freezer, they don’t keep the beer in it. Eventually, a nearby local bar managed to understand what I wanted and put two beers in the freezer for me, instructing me to come back in half an hour.

In the meantime, Romain and I had a shower, washed some clothes and cleaned our bike chains before heading into town to grab some food. We found a place that did rice and beef for only Tsh 2000 ($1) and I also managed to get 10GB of data added to my sim card for around $12. After dinner, we went back for our now cold beers and watched a movie on my laptop before getting to sleep.

Tukuyu to Uyole

In the morning we discovered our clothes weren’t dry yet but we needed to head off since it would be another long, uphill day. We tied all the wet clothes to the backs of our bikes as best we could and cycled off into the hilly countryside. On the way, we grabbed some cheap samosas for breakfast and stocked up on water and biscuits for the road.

We stopped for lunch in a small village and had some rice and beans for around Tsh 2000 ($1). It was a hard struggle uphill all day long and around 2pm it began looking like it might rain. I tried to cycle faster, which only made me more tired, but luckily we reached our destination of Uyole before any rain arrived. We found a cheap room at a place called the White House, although it only had one bed so Romain opted to set up his camping mattress on the floor.

It was still fairly early so with an afternoon to kill we decided to get our hair cut into mohawks for no particular reason other than it was less than $2 to do so. Mine didn’t come out quite as well as Romain’s, mostly because I don’t really have much hair left. We then grabbed dinner and a few beers before heading back to the lodge where I got some work done before bed.

Uyole to Igurusi

Today we would finally have some downhill, so we didn’t need to wake up too early. I got some work done in the morning in case the connection was bad later and then we had a big breakfast of chip omelet and samosas before hitting the road. I also drew some more money as I wasn’t sure if any MasterCard ATM’s would be along the road, but it turns out they are far more common in Tanzania than Zambia.

The road leaving Uyole wasn’t great. It’s a major transport route for cargo coming from Dar Es Salaam to Malawi and Zambia and as such is very busy with large trucks. In addition, the shoulder is all cracked and worn away, making it difficult to cycle in. As a result, we spent a lot of time weaving on and off the main road surface while trying to avoid trucks and still get the smoothest ride.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a long cycle as I was feeling a bit ill and weak by lunchtime. I wasn’t sure if it was the food or early signs of Malaria but we decided to stop for the day anyway. It was a bit before our intended destination but we could always make up the distance tomorrow. We found another cheap guesthouse (they are everywhere along this route, I guess to serve the truckers) and then later in the evening walked into town to source food. After a big dinner of chicken and chips, I was feeling a bit better but decided to get to bed early anyway.

Igurusi to Makambako

Fortunately, I woke up feeling fine, so after the usual two cups of coffee we got going around 7 am. If we hoped to make our destination of Makambako today we would need to cover 100 kms – most of which was uphill! We stopped for breakfast around 9 am and had the usual chips with a bit of onion and tomato salad – a staple breakfast food in Tanzania for around $1.

As the day wore on the rolling hills gave in to a gradual, slow ascent that drained the energy out of us. It was also very hot now and we were struggling to find anywhere with shade to rest or cold drinks. The roadside was sparse here and the few places selling drinks didn’t have any electricity to keep them cold. We settled for the warm water in our bottles and pushed on through the midday heat until eventually reaching the outskirts of Makambako by 5 pm. We stopped at the first roadside bar we saw, which by some miracle had cold beer. After downing one, we continued on to a place called Three-in-One guesthouse, which had been recommended on iOverlander.

It was very cheap at only Tsh 10,000 ($4) for a twin room with two single beds and ensuite, although rustic, bathroom. The bikes didn’t fit in the room but they had a secure courtyard within the property to store them. For dinner, we had some slightly pricey chicken and rice at Tsh 5,000 a plate – almost $3!

That night we were interrupted by a loud knocking on the door and some voices speaking in Swahili. Assuming it was a mistake we ignored and waited for them to leave but they knocked some more. Eventually, Romain opened the door and a plain-clothes man claiming to be an immigration officer said he needed to see our passports. We naturally didn’t believe him and argued but he showed Romain a badge which apparently looked genuine although I didn’t see. We showed him our passports anyway and he looked at them very briefly and asked where we had come from. Despite claiming to be an immigration officer he clearly didn’t know that Songwe is the Malawi/Tanzania border gate, which seemed suspicious. Anyway, he left and we went back to bed but I felt quite uneasy about the whole episode.

Makambako to Mafinga

Fortunately, our interrogator from the previous night didn’t return in the morning as I had feared. After a brief coffee, we got going towards the next town of Mafinga. As we left town we passed through one of the very common police checks, but for the first time, they stopped and asked us questions about our travels. This, coupled with the checks last night, makes me think Makambako must be a common route for illegal immigrants moving through Tanzania, as we were never checked or stopped again after that.

We grabbed some peanut bars and cookies for breakfast at a petrol station and continued along the road. It was unusually misty and cold and almost looked like a storm was brewing but it turns it was just a result of the change in altitude. We were much higher up now and the early morning air clearly takes a bit longer to warm up. Bizarrely, I started to get hayfever symptoms – something I haven’t had since leaving London two years prior. It was just a mild irritation – the usual itchy eyes and sneezing – but I really hoped it wouldn’t continue throughout Tanzania.

By lunchtime, the air had cleared and I was feeling much better. We stopped to rest and made some avo, tomato and onion sandwiches – the cheapest and most common roadside ingredients available here. Further along the road, we hoped to find a farm stall that, according to iOverlander, apparently sold wine, meat and most importantly: cheese (unheard of in most of Africa). However, to Romain’s bitter disappointment, it was no longer operating.

Heartbroken, we dragged our ragged souls over the last climb and then rolled despondently down towards our destination for the day, Mafinga. Much like most other small towns along this route, Mafinga is principally designed to serve truckers and is lined with cheap guesthouses. We chose the one with the most garish plastic animals outside (a common theme in Tanzania) and checked ourselves into a pricey (Tsh 20,000 – $8) but rather fancy room with satellite TV and all. It even had a real flush toilet and hot water shower – 5 star! It also had cold beer and amazing samosas in the restaurant.

Dinner consisted of the usual rice and beans with beef, after which we tried to watch some satellite TV only to discover it’s controlled by a central unit and we couldn’t choose the channel. After a few minutes of a bizarre Swahili-dubbed kung-fu movie, we retreated to the safe haven of watching Rick and Morty reruns on our phones.

Mafinga to Iringa

We had hoped for some of the lovely samosas for breakfast but had to settle for fat cakes and boiled eggs because sane people don’t cook samosas at 6 am. The route to Iringa looked mostly downhill so we took it easy, pedaling along and enjoying the scenery. Along the way, we saw the occasional burnt-out truck and colonial church, common sites around these parts. Lunch consisted of chips, onion and tomato with a few bonus bits of charred and chewy beef – yum! People who like well-done steak and undercooked chips would love Tanzania.

Presently, we arrived in Iringa and battled the horrible 200m climb to the village, which is oddly built high up on a hill overlooking the Ruaha river. It’s quite a bizarre place – a mix between local African with colonialists relics and modern tourists. We immediately noticed that things might be bit pricier here, so after an exorbitantly priced Tsh 4,000 beer ($2), we went in search of affordable accommodation. A kind gentleman directed us to the shit side of town where we found a Tsh 15,000 room in a guesthouse down a dirt road between a filthy sewerage river.

It was ideal and almost big enough to fit both the beds while still having space to open the door. The shower was particularly impressive as it needed to be manually switched on at the wall, after which is proceeded to electrocute me while showering. I decided cold water was fine.

After a quick beer, we tried to buy Romain airtime but it was Sunday so everything was closed. Instead, we took the world’s bumpiest tuk-tuk ride half a mile across town to get pizza at a horribly overpriced western restaurant advertised on iOverlander. Anyway, the pizza was actually fairly decent and almost worth the $8 price tag – double what we were each paying for our accommodation. Back in town we grabbed a beer and watched Tanzania beat Uganda at football before getting to bed.

Iringa

We decided to take a rest day from cycling and chill out in Iringa today. This mainly consisted of sitting at an expensive western cafe called Neema Crafts drinking coffee and eating cake and ice cream which was actually really good. They also had free wifi so I got quite a bit of work done and finished my Zambia blog. We reverted back to our usual cheap and cheerful rice and chicken for dinner at a small cafe near the lodge.

Iringa to Mbuyuni

The road from Iringa to Mbuyuni took us through an exceptionally beautiful mountain pass, although the road was very bad and we saw a few trucks along the way which had gone off the edge or been in accidents. The authorities don’t seem very active in removing the leftover bit from prior crashes – maybe to serve as a warning to others?

On the way down I was clenching my front brake so hard the connecting piece became loose, which gave the entire experience an exciting extra level of near death. It has managed to sufficiently stay in place though and still works so I guess I’ll have it looked at one day. Once we reached the lower escarpment the weather and scenery changed drastically. It was crazy hot down here and the surrounding bush reminded us of Botswana. We briefly tried to cool down in the shade of a tree but it was no good so we pushed on until we reached a small roadside cafe. The local guys there were cooking meat on skewers and every few minutes would run yelling into the street trying to get the trucks to stop and buy some. It looked quite dangerous but was hilarious to watch.

We had a cool drink followed by a beer and then a local girl decided she wanted to make me her husband so she came to sit next to me and we chatted in broken Swahili. I used my Swahili app to tell her she was very beautiful, which resulted in a cacophony of laughter from all the surrounding men. She then tried to coax me into bed but we needed to get going before sunset and I wasn’t sure I was ready to settle down in Tanzania just yet. I wished my new love a fond farewell and we cycled off into the sunset, never to be seen again.

In Mbuyuni we again found a decently priced guesthouse and bought some tomatoes and onion to make pasta in the room on Romi’s crazy petrol stove. That thing will be the death of us one day, mark my words. It’s a steel tube full of gasoline and sends balls of flames in every direction whenever he lights it. I’m fairly sure indoor use is not recommended.

Mbuyuni to Mikumi

We had the most interesting breakfast in Mbuyuni. It was just like the kind of beef noodle soup you get in Vietnam which chunks of boiled beef floating in broth, only without the noodles. Okay, it was just boiled chunks of beef with some onion and chili, but they gave us two chapatis with it to add a bit of carbs. The road to Mikumi was a long and winding uphill slog along a river but fortunately not as hot as the previous day.

In Mikumi, we decided to stay at a slightly expensive ($10) hotel/campsite because another guy from the Cape to Cairo WhatsApp cycling group was going to meet us there. Also, it did have an amazing swimming pool. After a quick beer, we got the tent set up and had a swim before getting some cheap dinner at a small local place across the road (the hotel restaurant was a bit overpriced). Since the other cyclist didn’t arrive that day and we hadn’t had much chance to use the pool we decided to take a rest day and stay another night. Fortunately, the hotel agreed to give us a discount for two nights.

I spent most of the time catching up on work and then in the afternoon Gilles, the other French cyclist, arrived. We had a few beers and pizza by the pool and then went into town in the evening for some local dinner.

Mikumi to Morogoro

We were up early the next day and headed back onto the road towards Dar Es Salaam. Surprisingly it runs directly through the Mikumi National Park, which has lions, hyenas and elephants, amongst other wild animals. The road is entirely unfenced and was a bit of reminder of Botswana, only this time we saw way more wildlife. There were impala and a buffalo as soon as we entered, followed by multiple giraffe, zebra, elephant and the occasional wildebeest.

After about half an hour we reached a park gate, where we stopped for some breakfast of biscuits and crisps. Along the second half of the ride, we didn’t see nearly as much game and towards the end, it began to rain. I kept my eyes peeled for lions but the rain clearly scared them off.

We stopped again in Doma, mainly to dry off a bit and grab an early lunch. We briefly considered stopping the night here as Morogoro was another 66 km away but in the end, continued on all the way. We soon discovered that this area of Tanzania is very catholic and as such, won’t allow two men to share a motel room in fear that we might be gay. It was mildly amusing until we realized that not only is it discrimination that should be illegal, but now we might have to pay twice as much for accommodation. We had grown accustomed to only spending around $3 a night!

Fortunately, we found a relatively cheap place ($7) which actually had really nice rooms. We checked in and had more chicken and rice with a beer before bed.

Morogoro to Chilenze

In the morning I finished my final work for the month and then we drew some cash and hit the road. It immediately started raining so we stopped after an hour for breakfast of beer soup and chapati again. The rain died down a bit so we continued on, but no sooner had we hit the road and it started again. This continued until lunch time and we tried to again to wait it out but it never ended. Eventually, we knew we would have to continue in it or we wouldn’t make it to Dar by Sunday night.

We pushed on through and finally made it to Chilenze soaking wet. We had a coffee and samosa at a gas station, grabbed some supplies at a supermarket and then found the cheapest lodge we could and got two $5 rooms. The restaurant owner next door decided to become our new best friend and sorted out everything with the lodge as they couldn’t speak English. He then made sure we would return to have dinner with him, which we did.

Unfortunately, the pillow in my room must have had fleas in it and I struggled to sleep, constantly feeling little bites on my neck. I didn’t think much of it at the time and eventually just fell asleep but awoke in the morning covered in bites.

Chilenze to Dar Es Salaam

The final push through to Dar Es Salaam quickly became a very difficult day. After a nice breakfast of beef soup and chapati with our new friend, we began the 100 kms to the capital city. Quite soon the roads became very busy and then we hit construction work that continued all the way into Dar city centre. For the next few hours, we were stuck in heavy, slow-moving traffic along broken half-finished roads.

It was slow going and headache-inducing as the beeping and honking never stopped. We couldn’t even find anywhere decent to stop for lunch and eventually just had some water and biscuits from a shop on a very run-down side street.

Cycling into Dar es Salaam sadly wasn’t the fan-fare event we had hoped for, as we were both too exhausted and frustrated to celebrate. We were, however, exceptionally relieved to arrive at the rather boutique Airbnb that Ash and Jeff had organized. After a shower and nap, we celebrated our achievement with some champagne and beers.

And so concludes my Africa cycle tour – 5,000 kms over four months through seven countries!

 

2 comments

  1. I’m teaching a literary piece to 16 year olds on Tanzania. They would not appreciate your post but I certainly did! Thanks a lot! Samosas… rice… chappati… sounds very Indian. I’m really curious now and will try to read up more on its people. Again, thank you!

    Like

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