ELEPHANTS AND AN INTRODUCTION TO VILLAGE LIFE THAT HASNCHANGED FOR CENTURIES AWAIT THOSE WHO RIDE TANZANIACYCLE TRAILS
A SHIMMERING-HOT HORIZON, broken by the occasional lone acacia tree, is all that lies ahead. Dust whirls about my ankles; the sun beats down on my back. I put my head down and push aching muscles, grinding the bike wheels through soft sand.
I raise my head and glance sideways then stop, awestruck. Beside me, watching warily, a giraffe stands tall with two young calves by her side, each a mirror of the other. Behind them Africa s mighty Kilimanjaro, its snowy top glistening, provides the perfect backdrop. The giraffes stare through their long, curled eyelashes. They seem surprised to see me in this remote, isolated area of desert in Sinya Mine, northern Tanzania.
The hard work has been worth it. I feel fit and sharp on day 13 of a 16-day mountain-biking tour through the heartland of Tanzania. New Zealand-based Escape Adventures delivers up-close experiences of Africa on bikes, with minimal environmental impact, and Iproud to be part of a group of four guided by Kiwis Dave Wood and Elysia Gibb with support-vehicle driver Joseph Njenga.
Our tour began in Tanzania s coastal city of Dar es Salaam and every day, as our fitness increases, so do the riding distances. The route takes us along quiet roads and paths where we are close enough to village life to smell the sweet aroma of Omo washing powder lingering on the long, loose, vibrantly coloured dresses women wear as they saunter along, their hips swinging to balance the buckets and water jugs poised on their heads. Chattering, squealing children rush out of their thatched-roof huts and
run alongside us, churning up dust with their bare feet and welcoming us with big, friendly smiles.
During the week we spend cycling alongside the Indian Oceanelectric-blue waters and past green coffee-covered mountains I delight in the postcard beauty of the scenery. But here, although the riding is tough, the wild, open spaces and distant mountains, rich with freely roaming wildlife, are an inspiring insight into the soul of Africa. Ibreathless from the biking and I curse the sandy paths but being here is exhilarating.
Indents of hooves in soft sand lead us to a herd of zebras and wildebeests walking shoulder to shoulder; zebras’sharp eyes and wildebeests’strong senses of smell ensure they remain loyal travelling companions. They are wary of us. A fewT bolt across the track, cantering a short distance then stopping to stare; others hesitate and wait until wTe pass. Further on, steaming mounds of dung, so large they can only be from elephants, bake slowly in the sun. Warthogs feed on roots by kneeling on their front legs; their long, curled upper tusks flash as they scrape and work the ground. In the distance gazelles sprint swiftly in elegant leaps.
Branches creak and groan and we see a whimsical tail swaying on the jumbo-sized back end of a grey elephant. We are too close for comfort so load ourselves and our bikes into the support vehicle. In the truck we inch closer to four bull elephants which all have splendid tusks. They hoover up buckets of dust with their trunks, curl them back over their heads and, with a mighty swoosh, expel great showers of dust over themselves.
Back on our bikes in the open plains, stick figures shimmer in a distant mirage. Young nomadic Maasai males robed in royal purple and red shepherd goats between thorny thickcts. The sight of strange-looking foreigners distracts them from their herding and they wander over to us, smiling widely. They seldom see tourists in this remote area and those they do are usually snugly sheltered in the safety of their jeeps and not pedalling bicycles.
Our sights arc set on a magnificent rock shaped like a loaf of bread, an island in a sea of sand. At its base, constructed in tawny landscape colours, a Maasai village of a dozen low, rounded mud huts is fenced with thorny acacia branches. Escape Adventures has, over a number of years, built a strong relationship with the people of this village and we are warmly greeted by women wearing layers of necklaces, their elongated ear lobes jewelled with brightly coloured beads. We are invited inside a small, circular hut. Entry through the low door can be achieved only by hunching over and shuffling in darkness along a dirt floor between two narrow mud walls. In the hutcentre, illuminated by a single shaft of light from a hole high in the wall, there is a small, smouldering fire. The huts interior is made of timber poles plastered with cow dung, twigs and ash; sticks and roots dangle from the roof.
A baby, born a month ago in this hut, lets out a muffled cry and is quietened by soft cooing from its mother. In the dim light their shapes are only just visible on a low, slatted bed. Although the practice is outlawed, young girls here are still circumcized and are deemed suitable to be brides from the age of 13. They arc often married to much older men whom they havenmet and who may have other wives. Despite this, the women before me seem proud and happy.
Two men carry spears but explain that, due to decreasing numbers, they no longer hunt lions although they wouldnhesitate to kill one if it approached their village. They are worried about cheetahs living in caves nearby and attacks from hyenas. We are given a spear-throwingdemonstration, the men hurtling their long hardwood missiles through the air with devastating precision.
Our camp is on the other side of the rock and as the sun begins to set we climb to its peak. We watch the daily homecoming scene below. Smoke rises from cooking-fires, dust billows from under goats’hooves as they are herded back to the village and, trailing them, figures in purple and red swing long sticks. Mt Kilimanjaro, having witnessed this scene for thousands of years, watches knowingly. The fiery sun relinquishes its daytime power and becomes a shimmering ruby disk dropping behind Mt Longido, leaving a jagged outline of mountain ridges across the Kenyan border. Before long the only light left is the glow from the camp-fires below.