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Tanzanian Space Odyssey Part I

An odd title one might presume when tuning in to find out how the cycling for rangers pan African cycle adventure is going after several weeks of silence… It turns out however there is no better way to encapsulate both the extreme vastness and iconic scenery that makes up southern Tanzania. The descent into the infamous Great Rift Valley is like entering a Star Wars set from when Aniken Skywalker was raised on planet Tatooine. These enormous boulders that sprout inexorably from the ground are the backdrop for a region that is otherwise smothered by dusty red sand.

Cycling through this type of terrain was always going to present its challenges but on a personal level I never realised how tough that reality would be… But first it is necessary to set the scene for this extreme section of our adventure.

Picture if you will, Johnno and Charlie pouring over our East Africa map on the last night we spent on the shores of Lake Malawi. The sun is setting. Theo and I are cooking tuna pasta, sweet corn and mayonnaise. Our fall back dish that appears at least 4 times a week.

Out of nowhere we here a loud “FUCK!”

We turned round to find Charlie having just worked out that the road we were planning on taking, along Lake Tanganyika, had not been maintained since 1993 and it was effectively sand. So instead of the 900km route we had planned, we were required to divert 2000km into central and eastern Tanzania via Dodoma, the capital city. An extra 1100km on the road meant an extra two weeks on the bicycle.. With our deadline to film in Akagera National Park, Rwanda, in under 3 weeks, we had quite the challenge on our hands.

Fast forward 5 days and as Theo described we had successfully reached Mbeya just in time to watch the Lions Rugby defeat New Zealand, morale was high. We descended from the mountain town and on our first night slept in the enclosure of a local farm, surrounded by pigs. We arrived in the late afternoon while the pigs were very much asleep. The night times worth of grunting that followed came as a large surprise. To quote Charlie, as he popped his head out of his tent the following morning, "I am never sleeping anywhere near a pig farm ever again."

We tucked into another Tuna Pasta and Mayonnaise (this time without sweet corn unfortunately) and delved into some deep analysis on British and Irish Lions rugby. I don’t think any sports pundit around the world has given quite as much thought to the lions rugby as the group of four enthusiasts that sat for 9 hours a day on their bicycles in the middle of Tanzanian desert.

This obsession / growing lack of other stimuli for conversation, as we progressed deeper and deeper into the arid desert, spilled over into a fairly amusing game of picking a rugby team from the people we have met so far on the trip. Unfortunately after a careful selection process, we decided that none of us in our current state, having lost nearly 7kg each, would make the team!

We progressed north along the supposedly ‘tarmacked’ road to Dodoma. It soon however became increasingly clear that this was more a work in progress.. For large stretches we were either battling through pothole ridden dirt roads or vicariously dodging Chinese workmen as they attempted to wave us off their newly compacted earth.

To make matters worse our fellow road users were in the form of giant, fossil fuel guzzling, monstrosities also known as lorries. They rushed past at frightening speeds and coated us with their warm fumes. Often we found ourselves piling off into the bushes on the side of the road as they bizarrely decided to overtake their equally sized gigantean truck brother, who was also mid overtake. Three abreast they would come bearing down on us, which induced fear only rivalled by the 20ft mock charging bull elephant from Botswana.

The worst part of this stretch for me personally, was my knee slowly descending into a state of excruciating pain. I couldn’t work out why it had decided to flare up during one of the most crucial phases of the entire expedition. For days I would spend the majority of the 9 hours we were on the bike, up to 500 metres behind the others, scoffing as many painkillers as I could. At one stage I was taking 8 ibuprofen and 8 paracetemol before lunch..

I must take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to the other guys. Without their support and most of all patience, as I trundled along behind, there is no way I would have reached Dodoma in one piece. In fact, we were very close to none of us making it to Dodoma in one piece.

On the morning before we arrived in the capital, we all saw our lives flash before our eyes. As I described previously, the trucks that run these roads overtake in the tightest of spaces. Blind corners are a particular favourite of theirs. As we cycled along together as a four, I looked up at the front, and saw one bearing down towards us overtaking his colleague. I raised my hand to try and signal to him that we were there. He took this as a provocation and instead of pulling back in, decided instead to swerve right towards us. I only remember seeing the lorry roughly a metre from my bike as I pulled off the hard shoulder and buried myself in a ditch. Theo who was at the back, flipped over his bike and thankfully missed the lorry by inches. The driver didn’t stop, and drove off as fast as possible, knowing what he had done was totally unacceptable.

The real shame about this event was it marks the only hostility we have received from anyone in over 4 months on the road. Bizarrely as we pulled into Dodoma still slightly shaken up, we were passed by the number one road safety activist in Tanzania. He also happened to be the only local we have seen wearing a helmet on his bicycle. Amusingly, as he whizzed past us, he shouted at Charlie for not wearing his. He went by the name of Wiseman Tanzania and as it turns out he was just that. Sorting out our hotel in Dodoma and inviting us to cycle with him during a parade the following day. He was a great example of the generosity we have continued to find on our journey.

One of my favourite memories of this generosity was our first encounter with the local Maasai tribes men. Theo having got his 5th puncture of the day meant we were forced to pull into the side of the road. At which point our pump decided to give up on us. Johnno and Theo set off left of the road in search of a local cattle farmer they had seen grazing his cows a hundred metres away. Sure enough 15 minutes later, the two lycra cladded Mzungus came rushing back from a completely different direction on the right hand side of the road, accompanied by none other than a Maasai warrior clutching a bike pump alongside his tribal dagger. The look of sheer elation on both party’s faces at having found each other was one that will stay long in the memory.

This trip has definitely sent a lot of hurdles our way. Not to mention a snapped gear wire that I managed to break halfway up a hill, 5km from the next town forcing a brief hitch hike on one of our dangerous friends. What has been great to see, despite the adversity that we have frequently been faced with, our morale as group couldn’t be in a stronger place.

Although the rest of Tanzania will be brutal, and the chances are there are a lot more struggles to come… they serve coffee and pizza in the hotel we are staying at in Dodoma so we won’t have to worry about till another day!

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