Tandem touring “the real Africa”. From Arusha to Kigoma, Tanzania

Once Elvis heard that we want to ride some roads that would take us further away from populated areas, he said – “let me bring my map”. He pulled out his foldable paper map. You could see that the map was well used, he traveled all Tanzania with it.

Elvis is a local conservationist who does a lot of scouting and route planning. He showed us some areas south of Arusha where we could take small gravel roads all the way to Dodoma. We got really excited and the next morning off we went.

Sometimes local tracks were much smoother than the “real” roads

The small gravel roads that took us deep into the bush were very good quality except the small 40 km bit somewhere in the middle. The road followed through Komolo, Terrat and then turned East at the South East corner of Tarangire National Park. These were very scarcely populated lands, with relatively few tribal people and almost no villages on the way. The trafic was ireggular and it almost disappeared at all the deeper we went into the bush. These were very remote areas of Central Tanzania.

It was also a very different back country experience from what we have seen so far. The beginning of a short rainy season made the surroundings very lush, trees and bush were full of birds and various sounds. So here we were, cycling empty and smooth dirt roads, enjoying the solitude from people and abundance of birds and wildlife. Bunch of giraffes were curiously observing us passing by. Tortoise with its fellow Love Birds enjoyed privacy until Igna spotted them. We were stopping to enjoy it all.

Our bush camping skills got better each day or at least that is what we hoped for. One morning we woke up to realize that the nearest hut was just a couple hundred meters away with all its cows and two legged creatures.

Sunsets in the bush

Another morning the heavy humming sound outside the tent was confusing but it all got clearer once I stepped out into the sun and saw hundreds of bees exploring our tent and the bike. Tens of bees were crawling our handlebars and it felt like we were camping near a giant beehive. Another time we did not see any elephants around but we were sure we saw a giant and dried out elephant poop near our tent. Were we near any elephants that night?
After three nights in the bush and sans any major civilization we eventually run out of food.

We were lucky to find this puddle, pretty much the only source of water in a couple of days.

Surprisingly, we were not able to find any potable water either. At some point we had to filter some water from a puddle on a road side. It got us through as we were on our way towards the asphalt road by then.
Once we hit tarmac not only our biking speed increased but also access to pleasures that come with it. I am talking about watter, mandazi, beans, bananas, coke and of course ugali.

Another two days on the asphalt and we have reached Dodoma. It is the official capital of Tanzania. It was pleasant to be able to book a “real” room with a “real” bed and shower. Wonderful times in a bush and enjoyable stays in towns – we are very happy to experience it all.

Chef action in Dodoma

In Dodoma we were about to meet our friend Owen. He is our friend from the Recyclery Collective, and he happens to live in Tanzania nowadays. Owen knew Dennis, an American pediatrician volunteering at the local hospital. We are very grateful to Dennis for generously inviting us to stay at his apartment while we were in Dodoma.

While waiting for the train in Dodoma

Together with Owen we were to depart towards Mahale National Park. Mahale is one of two National Parks in Tanzania where Chimpanzees are protected and roam free. The park is very remote, tucked away on the western shores of lake Tanganyika. The place itself does not get too many visitors as it requires very torturous and lengthy car/bus ride. Or if you have more money to spare, you can charter a plane. From park’s air strip you need to organize a boat as the final stretch is done on water. Normally you can access the mountainous slopes and the chimpanzee only from the shore. As the park was some 1000 km away from Dodoma and then another 1500 km to get to Dar Es Salaam we were thinking about taking a train or a bus instead of cycling all the way in order to save some time. To bike this distance for us would take ~ 30 – 35 days, and with our plan to have 2 weeks for Dar/Zanzibar exploration we did not have enough time. It is hard to believe that we are running out of time on this trip!!! Hakuna matata.

Tandem carrying on Tanzanian trains

So the new plan was to take a train to Kigoma. It should have been a romantic trip through beautiful Central Tanzania towards lake Tanganyika. We were told that trains are notoriously slow and late in Tanzania/Africa. We still opted to experience one, because of what could go wrong – we are saving quite a bit of time already? Interesting fact – women and men cannot ride in one compartment as per Tanzanian Railway rules. Men and women ride in separate compartments and in order for me and Igna to stay together we had to buy out all sleeper beds in one sleeper compartment. It means you have to pay for 6 tickets and it is called a “family” option. Our family (including Owen) did just that. Whole trip should take us ~20 hours. In reality it took us closer to 30 hours and it was a very bumpy ride 🙂 Similar to our bike ride on some very bad gravel roads.

Sugar cane and mango are the main sweet snacks for the kids in rural Tanzania

We also had to split our tandem to fit it in our compartment because a cargo carriage was nonexistant. The conductors kept trying to charge us extra for the bike. Only after we told them that the station master Rose “approved” us carrying the bike, we were left in peace. And in peace we rode, in hot and humid train full of joyous passengers who were swinging their heads to the local music blasting from the speakers.

During the longer stops crowds of local women were selling fresh fruits and other snacks and cold drinks. Train passengers were giving away their empty plastic bottles to local kids and the whole scene was bustling until the train whistle announced it was time to move on. Finally, after 30 hours on the train we reached Kigoma. Small but cozy town alongside North-Western shores of Lake Tanganyika, was already quiet as it was 10 pm and our first order of business was to find a place to stay. That did not take us too long and we ended up at Gombe Executive Lodge – $12/night gave us a nice double room with enough space for our luggage and a safe parking spot for our tandem bike.

We stayed in Kigoma another 3 days as we had to fine tune our tandem’s rear wheel. Yes, that wheel re-built project was not entirely successful as it had gone out of true while bouncing on local gravel roads. Another issue was that tubeless set up was not holding the air and one morning with only ~100 km to go to Dodoma we found a flat rear tire again! Again?! Because we had to ride only on a good asphalted road until Dodoma and then take a train, we opted to put a spare tube and to deal with collapsing wheel at some point in Kigoma. There I had to re-true the wheel and reseal the rim with a rim tape so the air wouldn’t not leak through the rim holes. At that point I was running out of rim tape so I had to be very careful not to mess it again.

Exploring local rocks at Jacobsen Beach in Kigoma

Finally the wheel was retrued and it was holding air properly. At the same time I was able to “fix” the rear light issue, and after cleaning wire contact points we had our rear light functioning again! The fixed light was a great news for us as we have already experienced some late night touring, and without bright lights it does not feel safe at all.
The bike and us were ready to tackle the last challenging leg of our journey ~200 km to Mahale National Park. How did that go we will tell you in our next installment. Happy and safe cycling to everyone and you can see more pictures from our trip here!

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