July 10, 2010 GMT
Kahama To Igunga

After Anthony departed, Christopher returned to say cheerio. I said I hoped to see Anthony in the morning at the music shop.
"Ah, I know where that is, it's in the centre of town. I'll come by here in the morning, if you're still here I'll show you."

Another thing I'm learning about Tanzania is that it's an 'early to rise' country. As soon as the sun is above the horizon, TVs and radios come on full volume, loud conversations start and the town is alive. So you tend to be ready to leave fairly early.

Christopher said he'd come by at about 10am, so well before that I went for petrol, and found that Kahama is a typical African town. It sprawls along one side of the tarmac main road, with numerous dirt turnings which must lead, you'd think, towards the centre. But every one looked like a dead end. Except for a road being laid with tarmac, but was closed to traffic. So I asked at a motel nearby.
"There's a big music shop in town, don't know the name. Go to the centre and ask again. Make sure you take the new tarmac road."
I said it was barred to traffic.
"Ignore that, ride round the barrier!"
So I did, as were all the motorbike taxis. But I heard shouts of "No way, no way!" coming from bystanders, which I ignored.
I followed a bike weaving between piles of gravel, dumper trucks and the tarring machine, then noticed bicycles and motorbikes using the dirt path in front of all the roadside kiosks, so I did that instead.
But this was an African town, and the road went on and on, through continuous shops and kiosks and bars and hotels and every other business establishment. Although all this was Kahama, and the main tarmac road goes through it, in our experience the "centre" can be four or five miles away, with nothing to tell you when you've actually arrived there.
And 10am was approaching.

So I returned to my hotel, found Christopher hadn't been there, and decided it was high time to move on.
My next target was Singida and I'd found it impossible to get confirmation whether the tarmac went all the way there. It didn't three years ago and my map showed long dirt sections. And I wasn't looking forward to more dirt.
Well, unknown to me at that time, I'd made an error in my route planning. A few miles outside of Kahama I needed to take a right fork, but hadn't noticed it when studying the map.
I was a long way beyond it before I realised my mistake, checking the map more closely this time.

I had two choices. Return to the fork and continue from there to Igusule and Nzega, or continue on this road to Jomu where a turning to the right also ends up in Nzega. There was a railway crossing some way back, over a branch of The Central Line (that line again!) that extends north to Mwanza, and I could see on the map that I wasn't very far now from Jomu and that turning, which would be the shorter way.
And this is where the maps come in.
The map in my hand shows the road I'm actually on as being dirt. But it's good tarmac.
It shows the right turning at Jomu to Nzega as being a dirt 'minor road'.
It shows the road to Nzega from the fork I missed as being tarmac, but the fork is twenty miles back.
But I have another map.
That shows the turning up ahead, but only a track to Nzega.
It shows a dirt 'main road' from the fork I missed to Nzega.
So I returned to look for the fork, hoping to find tarmac - - but this is Africa.......
After twenty miles a minibus driver in the dusty village of Sangilwa pointed to a derelict dirt road forking off of the main road.
"Yes, Singida and Nzega, down there. Try to keep to the right side! It's better!"
No it wasn't! It was just as awful!

That thirty five miles from Sangilwa to Nzega was, by a long way, the worst road I've yet ridden in Africa!
I didn't time it, there was too much work to do staying upright. But it was over three hours.
I didn't photograph it, there was too much work to do picking the bike up, and the camera was under the bike anyway.
It was nominally a single-track road with main ingredients of sand, fine dust, and broken up hard dried dirt. In all shapes and sizes. I met one big truck going so slowly that I overtook it (and that's really slow), but it passed me later. And a few buses, flying as usual.
I had to pick the bike up twice. The first when I hadn't yet learned the convention for when traffic passes in opposite directions. A bus was coming the other way. There was no choice for me but to ride up a low ridge between the edge of the road and the drainage ditch alongside, and stop. That was OK.
The bus passed quite close and my left foot moved a bit on the soft sandy-powdery ground. The bike leaned a little more to the left.
Now my right foot was off the ground.
I pressed on my left foot a bit to lift the bike more upright again, it sank deeper in the ground and the bike lent further to the left.
I stretched with my right leg to try to shift my weight over and get that foot closer to the ground. My left foot sank another millimetre.
So once again I had two choices.
Wait for someone to come along and get them to push the bike upright with me on it until I had both feet on the ground again,
or, let the bike go nice and gently. (And have to pick it up afterwards).
There was no one around.
And my arms were exerting a big effort on the handlebars keeping the bike reasonably upright, which couldn't last.
So I let go, and discovered just how incredibly soft and comfortable all this deep dust is.
You could make luxury mattresses out of it - maybe they do!
And I actually thought of taking a photo.
Except the camera was in the left hand pannier, now sunk into the soft ground.

It took three more hours of similar exertions to reach the edge of Nzega. I wondered how on earth I had come to be on this road when nothing I'd read about this route indicated that there was anything this bad.
At various times I saw people walking and cycling along smoother tracks on either side, and when possible I ventured across the drainage ditches and ridges to reach them. They were marginally better, but didn't last forever. At least, where they ended, there was a rideable track back across the drainage ditch, worn by all the walkers and cyclists going the same way.
I hadn't yet, on this journey, had to 'paddle' the bike along at walking pace with my feet on the ground. But the time for that had arrived. That good and expert advice stuck in my head, "Go fast over sand, it's OK and is the only way you can steer." That's universally accepted. But this isn't sand in a desert. It's sand under soft dust, over broken-up dirt, laid in deep irregular tyre tracks. And corrugations. Not long lengths of them, but so fierce that I just had to slow down to below walking pace and paddle some more. The deep sand and dust in them meant again that no discernible steering was possible.
I searched for a technique that would give me steerage on this surface.
I thought, "If you were on one of those pedal tricycle things you see at beaches with three big wheels that float on the water, but it only had two wheels, what technique would you use to make progress in an upright position?"
No answer came, but a stretch of violent corrugations did, sending me headlong into the central powdery sandy ridge.
I hoped upon hope many times that tarmac would return at Nzega.
Right on the edge of that town my bike was on its side a second time.
Three small narrow bridges were being repaired, the road surface of each bridge dug away from the left until there was just enough width remaining for a bus to cross over. That meant that the approaches had been well and truly churned up by those buses as they swerved around to line themselves up to cross on the extreme right hand side of the bridge without the wheels falling over the edge.
At the approach to the last bridge I made a bad choice. I don't really remember what it was, but the bike went into a huge hole in the right hand tyre track and steered directly for the soft ridge alongside. Where it stopped dead and fell over, giving me time to get off simultaneously. I was tremendously tired by this time.

So, back on the road again, over the little bridge, another hundred yards of nasty dirt - and then - tarmac!
Yes, this was Nzega. One, two and three hours ago, with energy rapidly running out, I had decided I would definitely stay the night here. I couldn't see myself possibly continuing any further.
And just after the start of the tarmac, there was a decent-looking hotel. Such joy!
But what was this? Coming into sight ahead was a huge roundabout, very modern and western-looking, with brand new signposts showing the three destinations from it, nice flower beds in its centre, new tarmac, bright white lines, and three wide and straight new roads heading into the distance to the left, the right and straight ahead. There were grass verges, a paved parking area for the motorbike taxis, a smart shiny petrol station and what looked like an equally shiny town over to the right. Nzega must be a real smart place.

Straight ahead was Igunga and Singida. The road flat and wide and black and visible for a long way to the top of a distant ridge.
To the left? I'm still deciding whether to look into that......

It's amazing what new tarmac can do for the weary soul and troubled brow!
"Well! That wasn't so bad! Igunga is only an hour away and I may even reach Singida as planned. Better get going!"

Posted by Ken Thomas at July 10, 2010 01:42 PM GMT

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