Two Wheels Through Africa


Our 39-day crossing of Zaire had included 660 miles of biking and little rain. Venita and I reached the Rwanda border on a Sunday. We had not obtained visas in advance, since this tiny country maintains few embassies and we had to wait at the border for hours. A one-month visa would cost an exorbitant $30 but a transit visa could be had for $5. When the official arrived, he said that the transit visa would be good for six days, but he left unexplainedly midway through filling out the forms. A second man told us that transit visas were only valid for three days. Finally a helpful third official showed up and issued us eight-day transit visas.

After months on dirt roads it was a joy to rediscover the joy of a paved downhill. Our attempt to trek into the Parc des Volcans in search of gorillas was frustrated since the animals had retreated far back into the mountains. Thus our crossing of Rwanda, "land of a thousand hills," was rather uneventful.


Tanzania, in addition to having the . world's finest game parks, has an interesting political system. President Julius Nyere is widely respected as one of Africa's most idealistic leaders. His vision of African socialism attempts to forge a national spirit of cooperation based on the interdependence of traditional village communities. Socialism here is far less coercive than in Eastern Europe. Government officials are restricted from engaging in private business and receive low salaries so that the country's reserves are not wasted on limousines and luxuries.

Venita and I headed for Serengeti National Park. We were not allowed to cycle in the park so we waited for a ride at the Ndebaka gate near Lake Victoria. A truck soon came along, but it was completely enclosed so that we would have no views of animals and we turned it down. There were no other rides that day and we made camp on the edge of the park. Early the next morning we broke camp to be ready for a lift, but there were only five cars all day and none had space for bicycles. We had to camp there another night and since we were technically inside the park again had to pay $8 each in fees, although there were no facilities other than water and pit toilets. During the day we stayed close to the park entrance out of fear of missing a ride, but my food stocks were becoming depleted so in late afternoon we walked over to the village to buy some yams and papaya. It was an "ujaama" village where the fields were collectively tilled, but the inhabitants weren't toiling in the fields; they were bombed out of their minds on the local brew. We sipped a calabash or two of the generously proffered drink, located some groceries, and left the merrymakers. I suspected that this experiment in collectivization lacked a work ethic.

Thompson's gazelle

With only two vehicles the next day we gave up on Ndebaka Gate and biked 11 miles into town where we got a decent hotel room for a fifth the cost of our campsite. Two more days of biking through grasslands populated with zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, giraffe, and painfully biting tsetse flies brought us to Mugumu where we were able to get a truck into the park. Since the border with Kenya had been closed, the number of tourists was way below capacity and Venita and I had no trouble hiring a VW combi. The driver was very good at locating animals and brought us close to two prides of lions and a leopard along with Thompson's gazelle, hartebeast, topis, waterbuck, buffalo, giraffe, warthog and ostrich. Later he told us that our leopard was the first one seen in two weeks and Prince Benedict of Holland had been unable to find any during his four day visit. The guide also enlarged on the danger from buffalo, which are mean-tempered and unpredictable. A charging bull had recently killed two of the staff.

We managed to get a lift south to Ngorongoro Crater on the same enclosed truck that we had spurned at Ndebaka. A Land Rover took us and another couple 2000 feet down into the twelve-mile-wide crater, which has an amazing variety of wildlife. We added cheetah, rhino, and jackal to our sighting list.

Back on the crater rim we headed for the Forest Hostel, but a room there was $20 and we chose to camp out at half the cost. We knew that we were not allowed to cycle in national parks, but Ngorongoro is a "Wildlife conservation area" where Masai tribesmen freely walk about minding their cattle. While other cultures usually crumble when exposed to Western civilization, the Masai have stubbornly clung to their old ways, living on milk and blood from their herds, following a pagan religion, dressing in orange robes and wearing elaborate beadwork collars, bracelets, and earrings. Still, they will often run after tourists to be photographed for a fee.

We asked the clerk at the hostel if it was permissible to cycle out to the park entrance, and received an affirmative reply. The crater rim is at an elevation of 7600 feet and it was cool and foggy in the morning. As we cycled in pea-soup fog through moss-hung trees, the lonely setting seemed more like Transylvania than Africa. Unfortunately, we were not alone. The pavement was thick with buffalo droppings and we could hear the bulls snorting and chomping on roadside trees before we could see them. With the limited visibility we would be quite close when a 1600 pound beast loomed out of the fog and retreated back into the bush. We were never sure whether the next animal would retreat or charge. Venita and I kept tense as we proceeded and, as each new buffalo emerged from the mist, hoped that it would back off instead of charging. As if this weren't enough, Venita went down on the slick road in a pile of droppings and came up a mess At this point a jeep came along and the rangers in it told us that we weren't supposed to be cycling in the park. We gladly loaded the bikes into the jeep and took a lift down to the gate.

Venita and I were excited by the prospect of ending our stay in Tanzania with a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Uhuru peak at 19,340 feet is the highest spot on the continent, and despite the incredulity of nineteenth century geographers, this equatorial summit is covered with snow and ice. Neither of us is a mountain climber, but the usual approach is completely nontechnical. Getting to the top is a five-day backpack - three and half days up, one and a half down. We left our bikes at the park entrance at 6000 feet and rented backpacks. None of the rental boots were big enough so I had to make the climb in my Addidas. Quite a few European tourists make this climb, many of them hiring guides and porters, but Venita and I chose to go on our own. The first day's walk led through rain forest to Mandera hut at 9000 feet. The buildings at Mandera are Alpine ski style "A" construction, designed to shed snow that doesn't fall at this low altitude. Although it was sub-equatorial winter, the thermometer didn't drop below 45F.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

The next day brought blue skies, but clouds hid the mountain. We passed from forest into savanna. The walking was easy, but I did have to pause occasionally to catch my breath. There was no telling how high we could get before the thin air would induce altitude sickness. We spent the second night at 12,340 feet watching the city lights of Moshi far below. On the third day grassland gave way to bare rockfields and we took it slowly as the air became even thinner at 15,520 foot Kibo hut. From here the going was more difficult and we engaged the services of a guide. At 1:30 a.m. five guides and eleven climbers began the final ascent. The guide carried a lantern and we followed with slow baby steps up a steep path. It was loose gravel and poor footing, but the real difficulty was the altitude; I was never sure how far I would get. There was no wind and it didn't get as cold as it could have but still my water froze partially. I finally had a chance to wear the down jacket that I had carried all over Africa!

It was a wonderful sight to see a band of blue and pink on the horizon above 17,000 foot Mt. Mawezi. At 6:30 two guides, two other climbers, Venita, and I made Gilman's Point, the top of the trail at 18,640 feet. From here we could see the snow fields of the crater and continuing around the rim for another two hours brought us to Uhuru Peak, the top of Africa. Eight months of overland travel had brought us here from Europe and our bicycles had allowed us to see far more than most travelers, experiencing village life and feeling the pulse of the continent. The cyclotourist is still an oddity in Africa, but the adventure is unmatched!






All photos copyright Ó Tyler Folsom