Bikepacking TZ: A Collection of Scenes and Short Stories

The pandemic has us in the throes of deep wanderlust. While travel has been momentarily halted, stories such as this get our minds whirling into a spiral of possibilities. Paulo LaBerge and Heather Plewes toured throughout Tanzania and Eastern Africa, penning a journal of sorts for Esker Cycles, filled with short stories. Today, we’re sharing those tales…

Venn Diagrams

Our self-supported adventure began on the outskirts of Arusha, near a busy little highway town called Usa River. We would travel northwards through the lush jungle landscape surrounding Mount Meru, then skirt the western base of Mount Kilimanjaro and enter traditional Maasai territory, including a large wildlife reserve. Turning westward just before reaching the Kenyan border, we would ride to the Lake Natron wildlife haven and rest several days before the final leg of our journey south to Mto wa Mbu – our ultimate destination. Nine or ten days of riding. That was the plan, anyway…

“Are you sure you will be okay?” our driver Marcello called out from the driver’s seat. “You have everything?” We stood at the road’s edge, looking over the many small piles of gear that lay haphazardly in the dust. Bikes balanced on their front forks, wheels laying nearby. It was already fiercely hot. We were buzzing with first-day jitters, that intoxicating combination of fear and excitement at the unknowns ahead. We glanced at one another with wry smiles – if we didn’t have everything, we weren’t going to change that now. I gave him a thumbs up and thanked him. “Good luck, my friends,” he said, a hint of uncertainty in his voice, before driving away.

We got to work strapping everything on the bikes, eager to get rolling before a crowd of onlookers gathered. As we pedaled up that first road, away from the city, we had no idea what lay in store for us. Sure, we had plans and maps and gear, tools and food and first aid supplies, (and not nearly enough sunscreen), but all the research in the world cannot prepare you for the reality of pedaling your bike through a foreign land. You are never truly ready for what you will face, no matter how prepared you think you are. You can’t have imagined the best and the worst of the adventure to come.

In a Venn diagram of people who love predictability and people who bikepack, there is very little overlap.

Unexpected audience

It was the middle of the afternoon – the hottest part of the day in the arid savannah of northern Tanzania. The nearest town was still quite a long way away. Planning this route via satellite imagery, I had expected the surface to be a well-traveled gravel road. Instead, we found ourselves struggling to pedal through soft, deep sand. Waist-high shrubs teeming with thorns lined the meandering doubletrack.

Heather and I paused for a brief rest from the exhausting work of alternating between pedaling and pushing our heavy bikes through the sand. Some shade would have been a welcome respite from the sun’s blistering rays, but there was none to be found. Laying my bike on its side, I stood and looked around in all directions. Nothing. No people, no houses, no vehicles. We hadn’t seen anyone or anything besides each other and the stark landscape for hours.

Gulping down some water from one of the large bottles on my bike before using it to refill my empty camelback, I thought I heard a familiar sound, if only faintly. The hollow clanking of handmade cowbells grew nearer.

Looking in the direction of the bell, expecting to see a herd of cattle or goats, I spotted a young Maasai boy standing very still and staring back at us. He seemed in awe at the sight of two crazy mzungu with heavily-laden bikes under the sweltering sun in the middle of nowhere. His goats meandered along, jostling each other, bleating occasionally, bells clanking, while he simply stood, looking at us intently. Surely, he was wondering ‘where are they from?’ or ‘where are they going?’ but perhaps, most of all, ‘why?’

Welcome Parties

“Mzunguuuu!!!” a small child shrieked when he spotted us pedaling slowly into his village. Soon his cries were amplified by at least a dozen other children who seemed equally excited to see a white couple approaching by bike. More gathered as we got closer. I had dreamed of this scenario – pictured myself surrounded by a horde of excited children – but the reality was sensory overload.

We stopped and were immediately swarmed. Smiling faces chirped a chorus of “hellos” as they looked us over with curiosity, their eyes growing wide at the sight of our mountain bikes covered in bikepacking bags and gear. They pushed one another to get as close as possible, giggling and chattering. After a few minutes, we started to roll onward, but found that we had persistent company. A small group of boys ran alongside for as long as they could. One boy far outlasted his cohorts – he must have run a few kilometers without any sign of letting up. In the end, it seemed he only gave up out of boredom.

This scene played out in many other towns and villages, particularly if we rolled through around the time school was ending for the day. Any time we stopped for a break or to buy provisions, we would accumulate a small audience, usually made up of curious children and teens. Some occasionally practiced their English by asking our names or where we were from.

We were surprised by how few were familiar with Canada. On our bikepacking trip to Jordan, it seemed like everyone we encountered had heard of Canada – many exclaimed “beautiful country” or “nice people” when they learned we were Canadian, but Tanzania was different. There was seldom a flicker of familiarity when we said we were from Canada. Perhaps they were more accustomed to travelers from Europe or the U.K. or the United States – but perhaps most were not accustomed to visitors at all.

The few tourists we saw on our journey were being transported by privately hired SUV. They rumbled by in the back seats of Land Cruisers, plumes of dust swirling in their wake. We were a source of much curiosity; traveling by bike.

A short hike to Lake Natron

We had planned two-nights camping at the Maasai Giraffe Lodge near Lake Natron. We figured our legs could use a break by that point in our ride, and we wanted a proper day off to see the unique landscape and wildlife the area is known for. The Lake was further from the lodge than we realized, and the staff convinced us to hire a Maasai guide to accompany us on an early morning hike to the shore of the alkaline lake where the water was said to be pink and the flamingoes plenty. Our guide ‘Matthew’ (not his Maasai name) assured us it was an easy 2-kilometer hike to the lake. 4 kilometers roundtrip. By this point in our travels, we knew that this was probably a low estimate.

Throughout our ride in Tanzania, we had discovered that peoples’ estimates for time and distance were always far shorter than reality. Something that we were told was 5 minutes away was 15 minutes at least. Towns or landmarks ‘just a few kilometers’ up the road were often a half-hour ride. Since most people walk everywhere they go, and no one wears a timepiece or has a smartphone, they don’t need to know exact distances and they don’t expect anything to be quick or easy. It’s hot and the roads are terrible and their lives are hard and things just take as long as they take.

Based on this experience, we guessed the hike might be up to twice as long as Matthew’s stated distance. We set off around 7:30 am. It was already getting hot. The sand was very loose in some sections and it was slow going. The view of the nearby volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai was spectacular in the early morning light. We walked and walked. Herds of cattle and donkeys wandered by. We marveled at their tolerance for the heat and lack of water or much vegetation. Eventually, we drew near the lake. It was pretty but not spectacular. The flamingoes were plentiful but very distant. We were thankful we had seen so many flamingoes at Big Momella Lake, much earlier on our journey. There, we had enjoyed seeing them from much closer in all their unfathomable pink glory.

We didn’t stay too long at the edge of Lake Natron – Matthew urged us to get moving on our way back since the temperature was quickly rising. Lake Natron was easily the hottest area we visited, but there was a strong breeze, at least. The hike back was a slog. Into the wind, slightly uphill, and more of that loose sand. Heather lagged behind, the heat and one sore knee slowing her down. We stopped a few times to let her catch up. When we finally reached the Giraffe Lodge grounds again, we were beat.

Heather checked her GPS tracker, curious to find out the true length of our hike: 12km.

Hakuna Matata

The reward that awaited us, after we completed our bikepacking journey on mainland Tanzania, was a 5-day trip to the island of Zanzibar.  We looked forward to experiencing the very different culture in Zanzibar, to exploring the historic Stone Town in the capital, and of course, to spending some well-earned hours relaxing on the pristine white-sand beaches. A self-proclaimed ‘beach-person,’ Heather was particularly excited to visit this tropical paradise.

Since our bikepacking trip in northern Tanzania had ended somewhat oddly – the last leg by bus rather than by pedaling – we found we were still craving some two-wheeled exploration. Despite our intentions to simply leave the bikes safely packed in their travel bags, we couldn’t resist assembling them to spend a day riding the extraordinary beaches near the northern tip of the island, near the town of Nungwi where we were staying for our last few days of the trip. We found out what time the tides would be most accommodating, and got our bikes ready the night before. Setting out shortly after breakfast, we headed toward the beach.

Heather remarked that she was surprised how ‘right’ it felt to be pedaling again. Two weeks struggling to ride the crazy roads of northern Tanzania had left her immensely relieved when we finished bikepacking, but this was different, she said. The bikes felt light as feathers without all of our gear strapped to them.

We soon reached the beach, and from there we began to follow along the coast line. The sand was hard-packed from the receded tide, so we had no trouble pedaling. After riding perhaps 10 kilometers along this sandy road along the exposed coast, we began to spot dhows (traditional wooden boats) floating in the shallow turquoise waters. We rode our bikes along a narrow sand hardpack that divides ebb and flowing seawater from soft powdery white sand beach, our temporary path taking us past a village’s small fish market. Fisherman evaluated their overnight catch to display at the market while their crews spent time under the shade of tall palm trees untangling long nets and laying them out to dry.  Not far from the market, a group of young dhow builders were busy hammering nails and sawing wood, assembling future fishing vessels.  These are typical sights that have been part of Zanzibar’s identity for centuries.

As we pedaled onwards, the coastal scenery began to change. We reached the most northern tip of Zanzibar and began to ride down the east side of the island. The eastern coast is pretty much a humongous slab of limestone.  During low tide, however, a ribbon of sand was exposed between a prehistoric limestone floor containing countless tidal pools on the ocean side and a wall of limestone resembling a small cliff which was created by years of ocean waves eroding the coastline.

The rocky limestone cliffs were made up of million-year-old fossilized crustaceans. We skimmed along with them, sometimes ducking right under them. Tiny crabs skittered off to their sandy hideaways when they heard our tires approach. We hardly saw a soul.

At one point, we found a spot to take a pause and absorb the beauty of our surroundings. The sea was a vast expanse of turquoise under the darker blue and grey clouds of a storm brewing. Like a curious kid, I hopped between tidal pools seeking sea life along the rocky shore. Sea urchins, small fish and speedy crabs hid within crevices. Not far from where we stopped, an abandoned old Dhow lay on the limestone coast; a sign that there might be a small village nearby.

As we rounded one rocky corner, we startled a solo local scanning tidal pools for trapped fish. He was the first person we had encountered in several hours. We had no shared language, but the man showed us his catch of hand-caught fish and a small octopus. Before long, we noticed the tide beginning to approach the shore. In addition to a storm on the horizon, this was a sign that it was time to return to Nungwi. Our tire tracks still freshly imprinted in the sand; we followed their path back.

As it turned out, our day riding the beaches of northern Zanzibar turned out to be the perfect way to end our bikepacking trip to Tanzania. We simply explored by bike, unencumbered by any plans or expectations. We had no schedule, no destination, and no worries… ‘Hakuna Matata,’ as the locals loved to say to the tourists.