Miles on the clock: 32,810
The no man’s land between the Burundian and Tanzanian border posts was 15 miles of hilly mud tracks passing several UNHCR refugee camps built to house people escaping the violence over the nearby Congolese border. Emaciated men ferried back and forth with heavy bicycle loads of plantain, maize flour or water.
The sleepy town of Ujiji sits on Lake Tanganyika and is a little place with a comfortable fishing industry. However, in 1871 it was the largest village in the region and was hosting a despondent Dr David Livingstone who’d been traipsing around Africa for seven years by that point. Presumed dead in Europe, his funds had dried up, his beard grown grey, his health poor after repeated ravaging bouts of malaria and dysentery. In desperation he had thrown himself on the mercy of Arab slavers whose occupation in Africa was the very trade that Livingston had campaigned for years to end. Henry Morton Stanley arrived (after a twelve month march from Zanzibar) with his huge retinue of soldiers, flag bearers, camp attendants and guides. The resultant meeting and Stanley’s pithy address has since been immortalised.
Stanley later wrote: “I would have run to him, only I was a coward in the presence of such a mob, - would have embraced him, only, he being an Englishman, I did not know how he would receive me; so I did what cowardice and false pride suggested was the best thing, - walked deliberately to him, took off my hat, and said, 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'”
From Ujiji an immaculate new road swept East to a ramshackle little town called Uvinza and then abruptly became mud. A shopkeeper warned me that the 130 miles between here and the next town - Mpanda – was inhabited by lions. So, it was with a little unease that I put up my tent in the bush that night, a little distance from the rutted mud path I’d be following for the next 400 miles.
The track bounced and jolted me through dense bush with very few people and only one or two vehicles a day. Sometimes but seldom did I come across little clusters of sub-basic grass huts. When I did, as often as not, the inhabitants would scatter at the sight of me. The weather was hot and humid. Little wind made it below tree level and the occasional streams where I washed and gathered water were usually only toe-deep and very murky.
Whenever I stopped for rest I was swarmed by flying ants that targeted my ears, eyes and nostrils. They would hurl themselves at me and get pathetically trapped in body hair and simply wriggle until either they died of exhaustion or I removed them. I soon learned to put a couple of bits of tissue in my nostrils, wear earphones and squint my eyes. The biggest challenge was ignoring their constant buzzing and wriggling about in hair on my legs, chest, neck and face.
Soon acclimatising to the slow pace, I contented myself with steady progress and relished the times when the track crested a rise and I could stand in a cooling breeze and gaze over the treetops. The verdant green carpet stretched away in all directions to the steam-obscured horizon. The distances and isolation of this region can be quite intimidating and I was glad that I’d arrived before the approaching rain season when the whole area becomes largely impassable.
Due to poor planning and slower progress than expected, I had begun rationing my food when I stumbled unexpectedly into the village of Nkondwe. A small group of huts inhabited by alcoholic men and long-suffering women. It was mid-morning when I arrived but already the men were all deep in their cups, or perhaps they’d never managed to crawl out of them in the course of the night. Empty plastic konyagi (a gin-like spirit) sachets were strewn liberally across the dust.
I’d been plagued by numerous punctures during the previous couple of days and had run out of patches so I paid one of the inebriates to patch a tube with rubber and superglue. A crowd of 200 - the whole village – pressed closely around to gape at me while the man fumbled with his tools and twice glued his fingers together. His equally incapacitated associate, in a moment of astonishing insight, noticed I was a little uncomfortable with the booze-breathed huddle edging ever closer. He plucked a fistful of straws out of the hut’s thatched roof and lit one end. Using this fast burning baton, he forced the lollygaggers back but to little avail as they immediately returned and the thatch was already thinning and patchy.
I was relieved to escape this strange village (which is not untypical of remote Tanzanian villages) laden with several packets of biscuits and a large bag of rice. These bolsters to my supplies got me to Mpanda where I could buy actual fruit and veg to go with my rice meals.
The road through the park is about thirty miles and I covered twenty of those in a ceaseless stressful sprint as a swarm of tsetse flies found me and laid about me. These bloodsuckers are something akin to a horsefly at the end of a long, intensive course of steroids. With their long, serrated proboscis, they can deliver a painful bite even through denim and they carry sleeping sickness which kills over a quarter of a million humans yearly.
So, it was a swarm of perhaps sixty of these attending me that I hurtled along the corrugated track, my mind taken off the threat of big cat predators. Most of my escort seemed content to sit on my saddle bags and wait their turn to fly forward and give me an affectionate little nip. If I stopped cycling they would all leave their perches simultaneously and attack.
In this state of distress I was pulled over by park rangers who informed me bicycles weren’t allowed due mostly to the danger of lion and buffalo. They drove me back to the entrance and I hitched a ride across the park on the back of a flatbed truck.
The bush had by now given way to savannah and the tracks were a little better so I made quicker progress and reached the next town excited about the tarmac I’d heard lay not far beyond.
Sumbawanga. Perhaps my favourite place name in all Africa: Sumbaa-waanga rolls off the tongue with pleasing ease and rhythm. The town is little to speak of but it provided a decent meal and a cold drink. Only twenty five more miles and I found myself taken in by a couple of South Africans subcontracted into the immense roadbuilding force working on the new artery of western Tanzania. Rudi and Louis saw me struggling along in the dust and invited me into their cabin in the roadbuilders’ camp. My first hot shower in weeks and the leftovers of a large braai (barbeque) they’d had the previous night revived me wonderfully and I wheeled out onto their freshly-laid tarmac with renewed vigour. The effortlessness of riding on asphalt after days on mud is hard to describe. It feels like the bicycle is powering itself and your legs are spinning more as a gesture than a driving force.
Several days of strong southerly winds added to my weariness. On the outskirts of a city called Mbeya I was suddenly retching. My eyes streamed and my throat burned. It turned out that police had used tear gas to quash riots about tax enforcement just ahead on the road. The wind had slammed the cloud of noxious air into myself and many pedestrians, some of whom were slumped against walls, vomiting.
There was a climb back to 2,000m and a region of mist-shrouded potato farms and sweet-smelling pine groves. The subsequent descent was steep and fast. Signs warned of fatal loss of control. At the bottom a truck had smashed through a fence the previous day and plunged into a river. Both driver and passenger died instantly. It felt somehow wrong filling my waterbottles there but the river was fresh and cool, and I was thirsty.
While tracing the lakeshore one morning, shoulders hunched, brow furrowed and eyes narrowed into the tedious wind, my left pedal snapped off. The sudden loss of the platform on which I’d been standing sent me plunging down a slope and into a bush. When I extracted myself I had to sit down and bite on my lower lip while pulling an acacia thorn out of my heel. It had entered the back of the sole of my foot, narrowly missed the heel bone, and embedded itself more than an inch deep in my flesh. Thankfully, less than a mile on I found a village and bought a new pedal.
The little-used road (despite being the country’s main transport artery) made a sudden steep climb away from the water and at each switchback I enjoyed a far-reaching view over my shoulder superior to the previous one. Traversing a fertile valley a little inland, I stopped under a rotting thatched structure to eat lunch. A late-teenage boy walking past spotted me and froze on the spot, startled. He stared in terror for several moments then ran a frantic few yards and scrambled out of sight up a tree. Ten minutes later he jumped down with a large green fruit that I didn’t recognise. He stood stock still, only a few yards from me, as if mid-stride, in the hot midday sun staring at me and clutching his fruit. He said nothing and remained there for half an hour until I left. I genuinely think he wasn’t sure if I was real or not.
One day at the lake was lost simply to drugs. A couple of the other tourists staying in the lodge returned from town in the morning with “some cakes” that they’d “bought on the roadside”. After swallowing several mouthfuls of the stodgy, strangely familiar but unidentifiably tasting stuff we were informed that we’d just had more-than-sufficient portions of hash cake. Sufficient for what?
Sufficient to string me out for twelve hours of confused hilarity, running jokes that made no sense, a poor but endlessly repeated impersonation of a swinging monkey, merged events, frequent dips into the now-oddly textured water in the vain attempt to sober, several meals and a mouthful of chocolate that cloyed and clogged around my tongue and among my teeth with indescribably delicious taste. Dark fell unnoticed and finally I found my rational mind clawing it’s way almost to the surface again. It reached just high enough to tell me to sleep.
I’d arranged to meet a friend in Zambia on a certain date and had left a day late. For four days and 370 miles I was in the saddle before sunrise and collapsed out of it after sunset. No breaks except hurried meals and vindictively-frequent puncture repairs. One night I unwittingly camped on a nest housing such prodigiously sized ants that I could easily hear their footfall as they scuttled back and forth across my tent.