#11. Nairobi to Iringa...Going it alone and really feeling the Africa of my boyhood dreams!

Beyond the Saddle ....Cairo to Cape Town
Howard Fairbank
Mon 26 Mar 2007 16:27
  07:46.829S 36:48.957E
   Issue #11

Nairobi to Iringa  


Going it alone and really feeling the Africa
of my boyhood dreams!



A typical scene from Lake Manyara National Park. 
An extensive Rift Valley lake, with the valley side mountains 
rising from the valley floor.


Iringa, 25 March 2007.


Yes, another official section of this incredible adventure completed:  Section 4, and one for which I had great expectations, because as a 10 year old I had read books on the life of a game ranger in Kenya and Tanganyika. (As Tanzania used to be called.) I guess some kids wanted to be firemen or pilots, but inside I wanted to be a game ranger in East Africa, in the late sixties! Longing to one day experience it ‘all’ for myself, I now had the perfect opportunity on my bike.


The past 10 days have delivered such an amazing range of experiences I hardly know where to start…. Exiting the city of Nairobi, the tail southern end of Kenya, Mt Kilimanjaro, Arusha Game National Parks experiences, then a 5 day, 600km freedom excursion away from the group, dealing on my own with the challenging Tanzanian roads to Iringa.


The start in Nairobi….


The journey continues from my last newsletter sent from Nairobi where I had a busy 1 ½ day rest stop. These rest stops never turn out to be ‘rest’! Somehow, there is always a lot to do, as it’s the long awaited connection back to ‘normal’ infrastructure. This time I had a chance to fix bike tyre problems, and look at preventive maintenance for the tough Tanzanian road conditions ahead. From the small amount I saw of Nairobi, I was impressed overall with its degree of sophistication, however reading the local newspapers and driving around the city did remind me of the ever present crime situation similar to South Africa.


I was fortunate to meet up for a splendid dinner with Julius, a Kenyan based director of the African Conservation Foundation, who enabled me to better understand the great work the fund is involved in. On a lighter note, he also explained to me how Mt Kilimanjaro came to belong to Tanzania (You will see on your map that the Kenya / Tanzania border takes a purposeful detour around the mountain!):   Well, in the ‘bad old’ colonial days when Kenya was ‘owned’ by the UK, and Tanganyika by the Germans, the Queen and the then Chancellor of Germany were meeting for the normal course of politics, but unbeknown to the Queen it also so happened to be the Chancellor’s birthday. Embarrassed that she didn’t bring a present with her, offered the chancellor, a ‘very special present’…Mt Kilimanjaro from Kenya!…which he gladly accepted and so the border was changed!! 


The last of Kenya and the Tanzanian welcome…


After the pomp and ceremony of the 40km escorted convoy ride to the outer city limits of Nairobi, the wild open African bush I was impatiently waiting for soon revealed itself. This was the vegetation I had dreams of - lots of open plains, with fairly dense but very green thorn bush, undulating hills, with more significant mountains ranges surrounding the stage. About 40km from the border town of Namanga and nearing the end of a long day's ride, as I came around a corner there in front of me I could just make out the base of Kilimanjaro. The top two thirds hidden in cloud, but from its base one could see that it was a huge and special peak in the area….this was the real east Africa.   


The next day like an excited little school boy, I was up early, and to the sounds of Johnny Clegg’s song ‘Sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro’, left for the day’s adventure. The day being spent crossing the border into Tanzania, cycling past the famous mountain and onto Arusha, the gateway to Tanzania’s most prized wildlife offerings. Unfortunately the cloud cover prevented me seeing the magical mountain, but as a ‘second prize’ I was rewarded with a special private siting of a herd of about 12 giraffe that crossed the road just in front of me as I was cycling past the Kilimanjaro tangent point. (I know for many of you will be saying…’So what’s so special about seeing a few giraffe?’ Somehow, being out there on my bike on my own, with Kilimanjaro right there, and being right in amongst these beautiful animals was very special for me….


The change in the culture of the village people from Kenya to Tanzania was noticeable. The tribal Masai people go across the national boundaries, so as in Kenya, in the rural areas one comes across small groups of Masai herding their cattle. On entering the villages, I was struck by the conservative almost shy nature of the local Tanzanians. This versus the very open and forthright friendliness of the Kenyan villagers. I guess language is responsible for some of the barrier, as English is more widely spoken in Kenya. As I have spent more time with the Tanzanians, I realise they are very friendly, just more reserved.       


Arusha and its surrounding gems!


Arusha is situated at the base of another huge volcano (Africa’s 5th highest), called Mt Meru, and we had the ‘luxury’ of three days off cycling to explore the area. It's a bustling tourist town, having its pulse boosted a few years back when it was named the headquarters for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This has resulted in close to a 1000 people from 85 different countries relocating to assist in the trials, and interactions with the ‘locals’ invariably brought me into contact with highly qualified, foreign people seconded to the tribunal, and enjoying a relaxed expatriate life. Stories on the success of the tribunal varied from skeptical to mediocre, with a huge amount of money having been spent, but relatively few prosecutions. (Annual budget is around US$840 million, with a poorly defined end date set for 2010!)


With thoughts of cycling out of my head for three days, and the lure of  some of the most publicised game parks in the world in the form of Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara close by, decision overload was a real issue! I decided to do ‘more of less’ - just two parks, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater, and also, rather than take a ‘guided tour’, drive the parks myself. (Serengeti, being a further 200kms driving and deserving of more time will have to wait for my return!) This turned out to be an amazing adventure, not least because the rented 4X4 vehicle developed a ‘few problems’ along the way, and forced me to call on my solo sailing ‘make a plan’ abilities! Somehow I guess it’s not in me to take the easy, relaxed way! Lake Manyara National Park, not as well know as the big ones but on the way to Ngorongoro Crater, proved to be a gem with the variety of game, wonderful Rift Valley lakeside scenery, and prolific birdlife. Only disappointment was that I didn’t get to see the park’s famous tree lions.





Sunrise over the Ngorongoro Crater as I descended. 

The extensive lake within the crater is clearly visible.




However the real ‘memory forever’ experience was Ngorongoro Crater National Park. Before the eruption that formed the crater, Ngorongoro was estimated to be as high as Kilimanjaro, but with the top two thirds blow off, a huge crater of more than 20km in diameter and 260 square km in area is all that remains. The crater is 600m from rim to floor, and involves a very challenging drive on separate routes both in and out. (1st gear on low range 4X4 for much of the way up!)


The uniqueness of the site is that the crater forms a virtually sealed eco system, where a huge range of wild life has what appears to be the perfect paradise of abundance. Camping on the rim and then being first down the crater at sunrise provided the perfect start to a wonderful day’s game viewing, where I was fortunate to see all the ‘majors’ barring leopard. What really struck me was the huge number of game on the crater floor; I had never seen such large herds of diverse animals. (Love to be a Ngorongoro lion…they even looked fat and lazy!!)


My need for more of a challenge takes over……


Those that know me well will probably be wondering how I am dealing with the whole group / tour thing….? This in the context that I am essentially part of a ‘travelling village’, with 30+ paid cyclists / passengers, two trucks, two 4X4 vans, and 5 support staff! Well dealing with the group dynamics has been the toughest part of the trip so far…..so I decided to cut ties for six days and ‘go it alone’ essentially from Arusha to Iringa. This was not a decision I took lightly, as I don’t have my panniers that would enable me to carry a lot of gear, but after weighing it all up I thought it would be a good challenge to see if I could make the 600km to Iringa totally alone. With the blessing of the tour leader, I excitedly packed my basic ‘survival’ equipment and spares and set off on the challenge. I am pleased to say that I arrived safely in Iringa, two days before the group, but no doubt with a different perspective than if I had been part of them.


The additional degrees of freedom and associated responsibilities that go with doing it alone, provided that additional challenge that I was searching for, but with it came a loneliness that I probably expected, but the magnitude of which surprised me. Being a white, anglo saxon (not sure whether my South African heritage means I can also truly be ‘an African’!), everywhere one goes, one is so aware of how out of place one is. With no support, everyday I needed to connect to the local village communities for ALL my support…food, water, lodging, directions, and social needs. This is where the loneliness comes in. One realises that satisfying each of these needs is a challenge, and one that consumes part of you to get done. This after a long hard day out there on the mud roads of Tanzania! Sometimes the need cannot be fully satisfied, and you suffer at a fairly basic level, by for example, not having a decent meal. Also in the background there is the continual expectation from the locals that I should ‘give them something’. 


It took me a day or so to get into the right mindset, moving from the ‘luxurious’ almost regimented, ‘tour’ modus operandi of the group situation. In the group virtually all one has to worry about is completing the day’s cycle and setting up tent in the evening. The route is clearly set out everyday, and a (mostly) nutritious and recognizable set of meals provided at very predictable times, with as much as you want. On one’s own it’s different….! This experience took me back to my few months last year cycling on my own in Patagonia…..but I have come to the conclusion that Africa on one’s own is quite a few levels up on the tough scale!


The other noticeable difference I experienced was how much more free my mind became when I was cycling on my own….somehow I managed to get to a deeper inner peace that didn’t seem possible with other cyclists around, finish points to aim, social interaction at lunch stops etc. It became more of a survival thing, and dealing with a deeper more fundamental set of needs, which clears the mind!  Also I found I pushed myself more on the daily distances than the group situation would have allowed.


All in all, I feel very satisfied and it was a rewarding experience that gave me a much needed safety valve from the group situation.  


The Tanzanian Special-ness yet Unspecial-ness…..!


Cycling through Tanzania, I have been struck by the uniqueness of the countryside, and asked myself what is so special about it, because there are no amazing special features and the wildlife, other than the wonderful national parks, was disappointing. So what was this special-ness then?


For a start, the vegetation is so green - thick with bush, shrubs and then the baobab forests. Then there are these huge flat plains crossed with lots of large but clearly non-perennial flood rivers flowing into lakes, with distant mountains providing a distant border to this endless earth feeling. Still nothing special?….Well the earth is then this deep red colour, and the sky seems to  always be a patchwork of huge cumulus clouds covering a wide range of shades from cotton wool white to dull grey, to a dark and threatening almost purple amongst pieces of bright clear blue sky. All of which creates a thick humid atmosphere that often, and anytime of the day or night,  becomes overburdened and pours down heavy rain for a short period. Because of this regular rain and the flat terrain, there are lots of mud and water pools, and the sounds of frogs and birds make for a tranquil, continuous, ‘post rain’ clean feel! In the first few days of experiencing this environment I was convinced I would see python bathing in the mud puddles next to the road, just fitting the photos I had seen…but disappointingly, wildlife, or even evidence of it was scarce…..I guess these days being replaced by nomadic herdsmen’s domestic herds.


Hopefully you can feel what I am describing above, as I am not trying to make something of nothing. It was really special cycling through this natural east African botanical hot house!  


The mud and roads of Tanzania……seen all the possible road conditions now!


Other than the 80km from Arusha, this section has been all dirt road, and mostly a heavy red clay soil. When you add the high precipitation environment I describe above, the conditions for cycling become very challenging indeed!  Deciding it was better to preserve dry clothes and throw away my dirty disposable outer wear everyday, I chose to wear a black plastic garbage bag with holes cut for my arms and head! Because it was warm, and cycling generated further body heat, this turned out to be the perfect solution for the first two particularly wet and muddy days. Probably also explains why I was looked at strangely and was told by two of the ‘guest houses’ at the end of the day that they had no accommodation! Looked at myself in the mirror later, and what I sight…..mud from head to toe! Least I had nice clean dry clothes once I was able to clean up!    


At the worst point on the trip, I had to stop cycling and dump my bike in a raging stream to remove the clay which had clogged up everything, and virtually prevented the wheels from turning. Great conditions for chain performance too! In Arusha, anticipating these conditions I had taken the precaution of replacing my now 5000km old chain with my second spare, a virtually new one, but even with this move I had three chain failures, with the mud and grit forcing its way between links.


With the plethora of rivers on the plains, I had three fairly full on ‘bridge-less’ river crossings, the one in particular being a river probably 150m wide, a metre deep, but flowing strongly.


From what I hear about previous years, it appears that I was quite lucky in not having any significant rain for the rest of the section.


The clay soil wasn’t everywhere, as there were large sections of very bony stony sand surface, which forced me to explore the very edge of the road in search of a more comfortable path. These conditions all made for a deep concentration and focused riding, and I was pretty tired at the end of each day.


On the last two days up until about 50 km from Iringa, traffic was minimal, maybe seeing four or five vehicles the whole day. Reading my travel book, it basically says that the route I took is not recommended for ‘normal’ travel, and taking a bus is totally unpredictable and could result in possible days delays. So all in all, I feel very satisfied that I was able to complete this section, and un-assisted! 


A few odds and ends, and amusing (to me!) experiences:


The story of the Taji Mahal ‘restaurant':: I was hungry after a huge 170km day, and was offered and ordered ‘rice and chicken’. Well when it arrived it was a small bowl of rice, with a piece of ‘cheekbone and beak’ for the chicken! No other restaurants around, and the only ‘shop’ in the village only sells small packs of 4 cream biscuits! Serious calorie shortage that day…. (Thankfully I had some energy bars, but still no protein!)



A different Taj Mahal……

recommended rice and chicken dishes, but you had better not be hungry!





The following night at the village of Mtera (see photo), determined not to go hungry, I told the ‘chef’ I was ‘very hungry’ and through sign language explained I wanted lots of food!  Well I got a WHOLE chicken, hacked into about 15 pieces, a pot of seven boiled potatoes, a huge bowl of chips, a bowl of boiled greens, and a very tasty tomato based sauce! All this for US$5! Was the boy happy with this!



One of the ‘guest houses’ I stayed at on the solo trip….

US$2 per night, and lots of stories attached. But included, a fan, mosquito net, and mandatory rubber slip slop footwear for use in the toilet!




In Dodoma, the official (yet highly unlikely!) capital of Tanzania, I strolled to a real local restaurant and bar for dinner. As an obvious stranger, a kind local stood up and offered me his prime seat with a street view. I was embarrassed, but he insisted and I offered him a drink for the gesture. A seat next to me be came available, and he slotted in signalling he had also ordered his drink from me. We tried communicating but he couldn’t speak a word of English, and I only know four Swahili ones, so our interaction came to a polite, but abrupt halt. I ordered some food, and another drink, and he then expectantly asks the waitress to get him a second one on me again too! Talk about opportunists!


While sitting at the same bar counter, a local pulled up on his custom painted, traditional single speed bicycle - clearly his pride and joy! Painted on the rear mudguard was a sign that read: ‘Jealous people don’t win!” I loved it because it said so much of his pride for the bike, and also because it was in English, which very few would even understand!


On the first encounter with a Tanzanian bar, I was hugely impressed with the range of beers on offer and their brand names….Serengeti, Safari, Kilimanjaro, etc. On reading further, I found out the local Tanzanian beer quality is so variable that the local company is in danger of going under. The mighty, and well know to many of you, South African Breweries bought them out, dumped the old brand, and launched all these tourist attracting brands, that are all lagers, seem to all taste the same, but have no doubt increased sales enormously!  Another form of opportunist!


Lastly, it's very late on the last day of my rest day in Iringa as I type this….why??  Well Ruth arrived yesterday, and I got distracted enjoying her company seeing the ‘hotspots’ of Iringa.


Wait for the next newsletter to see her impact on my adventure experiences! Firstly, I will now have someone to take photos of me….so you may see more of me in the next newsletter!


Kwa Heri….. (Swahili for Good bye!)

A typical scene from Lake Manyara National Park. 

An extensive Rift Valley lake, with the valley side mountains rising from the valley floor.

The Progress So Far
  • Current Section:
    Nairobi to Iringa  

  • Hours cycled since last newsletter:

  • Distance cycled since last newsletter:
    1012 km

  • Distance cycled so far:
    6230 km

  • Km to go to Cape Town:

A wise old Masai Man just before Kilimanjoro.

Busy with....Section Four: 
Nairobi to Iringa

One day south of Nairobi the Tanzania border is crossed and immediately thereafter the unmistakable Mount Kilimanjaro and its smaller sibling, Mount Meru dominate the view. The city of Arusha in Tanzania is small but vibrant and is growing fast; it is also the gateway to the Serengeti National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro.


Heading south from Arusha, the route continues along roads where one has to watch out for not only cars, but also zebras, giraffes, and maybe even elephants. The route leads close to many famous national parks including the fabulous Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, Taragire, and Ruaha, and the tribesmen of the Masai will be constant companions along the road. Eventually the route passes through the small capital city of Dodoma and then through some of the most unique, verdant, memorable and least travelled parts of Tanzania, finishing in the pleasant town of Iringa. This section called the “Snows” section might not be the most difficult, but guaranteed, it will be one of the most memorable.


Section Dates:

13 March to 24 March

Camping on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater with the 4X4 that provided all the excitement!

The very beautiful yellow billed stork, common within the crater.

Cheetah siting just after sunrise on arrival at the Ngorongoro crater floor.

The start of the bike journey to Iringa on my own. 

600km of challenge ahead! 

Bike all packed with my gear for the trip.

All nice an clean before the first of many river crossings….did it look different along the way!

Coming up....Next Section:
Iringa to Lilongwe


This section of the tour highlights the small country of Malawi, a luscious country that sits beside the huge expanse of Lake Malawi surrounded by beautiful mountains. After setting off from Iringa, it will still take a few days to get to Malawi, but the cycle through southern Tanzania will be rewarding as it passes through undulating verdant hills that are teeming with banana and tea plantations. The scenery is breath taking, the small towns lively, and the people incredibly friendly.


After three days from Iringa, the border of Malawi is crossed to enter one of the friendliest countries on the trip. Over the next week, the route hugs Lake Malawi, and there is a stopover in Chitimba, a town near Livingstonia, which commands one of the most spectacular views of the Lake. Continuing from here the route leaves the lake to move into the mountains and heads for the capital city of Lilongwe. This involves several days of riding in the beautiful mountains of Malawi through small villages as well as bustling towns such as Mzuzu, Jenda and Kuzungu. There will be opportunities to sample some of the Malawi Gin, before this section then ends in the lively capital of Lilongwe.

One of the many bridge-less river crossings…this one at least used to have a bridge!  

Note also the muddy condition of the water.

The Complete Route


  • Total Distance Cairo to Cape Town: 
    11 884 Km

  • Countries through which the route passes:
    Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa

  • Sections:  
    1. Cairo to Khartoum  
    2. Khartoum to Addis
        Ababa (Sudan/Ethiopia)
    3. Addis Ababa to Nairobi
    4. Nairobi to Iringa
    5. Iringa to Lilongwe
    6. Lilongwe to Victoria
        Falls. (Malawi/Zambia)
    7. Victoria Falls to
        Windhoek (Zambia/
    8. Windhoek to Cape Town  
        (Namibia/South Africa)

  • Expected arrival in Cape Town:  
    12 May 2007

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