July 24, 2010 GMT
I was hoping for an early departure from the campsite near Iringa, to reach Tukuyu in good time. But two visitors had arrived the day before, who passed by while I was loading the bike that morning.
First was a friend of the site manager who had arrived to help out with things in general to give the manager a few days off. She and her husband used to be farmers in Zimbabwe so she was a useful source of information, as well as wanting to know all about my trip.
Then Neville passed by, who had arrived the previous evening on his Kawasaki water-cooled single, from South Africa where he lives, on his way to Germany. He wanted to know about the route ahead, particularly as he, too, was planning to go to Lake Tangayika, Rwanda and Uganda on the way to Nairobi. I thought no one was taking that route but me! But now I've met quite a few travellers who have shown otherwise.
Also, he is travellling as slowly as me, having taken four months to arrive here from Cape Town via quite a circuitous route through Swaziland and Mozambique amongst other countries.
So we chatted quite a bit and he insisted on taking some photos of my bike, so here they are.
I didn't leave the campsite until about noon, so didn't go into Mbeya as I thought I might, but directly to Tukuyu, in high farming country, the last town of any size before Malawi.
It was a roller-coaster ride. Dropping from 6000ft at Iringa down to a warm 2500ft and the Usangu Flats, with the Ruaha, Great Ruaha and Little Ruaha Rivers. Followed by a left turn shortly before Mbeya and a steep climb up to a chilly 7600ft where the road wound round Mount Rungwe on the way to Malawi and Lake Nyasa.
(Lake Malawi, as it's usually named on many maps, is known as Lake Nyasa here.)
There was an amazing display of colourful farming on the northern slopes of Mt. Rungwe, everything from corn and maize to tea and market-garden plots.
Approaching 7000ft, stormy-looking dark clouds started gathering, but left a billowing hole just big enough for the sun to find.
In the distance is Mount Mbogo.
The steep road climbing up to this height twists and turns through farms and smallholdings alive with people working in the fields right next to the road. Consequently the heavyweight trucks and trailors descending were inching along at about the slowest pace I've seen, certainly less than two miles per hour. It wouldn't do for one of these to reach a speed downhill at which their weight, speed and the steepness of the slope are too much for the brakes. But it does happen, as one or two crashed and abandoned trucks alongside the road are pored over by children playing on them and adults salvaging whatever is useful.
Recent wrecks still have the driver and his mate camped next to them, complete with cooking fire, guarding the load until other transport can cart it away.
Beyond this pass the road descended again to about 4000ft and the relative warmth of Tukuyu.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 03:44 PM
Uncharted Territory In Tanzania
I suppose the sun is uncharted territory, so here's another sunset, near Iringa, across the farms of the rural Southern Highlands.
There seems to be little time for rest on this trip - will have to do something about that. First, a note about my recent route.
On departing Nairobi in the direction of Uganda, quite some time ago now, I left the "London to Cape Town Main Route," and have seen hardly any overland travellers since.
When I reached Morogoro about a week ago I joined the Dar es Salaam to Mbeya road, which brought me back onto that main route.
And a few miles after Morogoro a fully loaded BMW passed in the opposite direction, with a white rear number plate - so maybe German.
But as they say ........... BMWs don't stop.
And then, in Mikumi, I bumped into two Swedish riders, on a KTM and a ..... oops, I forget.
But what a small world! They must have been following and catching up with me the last few weeks, as they too left Nairobi towards Uganda and have been through Rwanda and Kigali as well.
"It's a great route around Lake Victoria. But dust and face powder up to your elbows on that road! Diabolical!"
They liked the Uganda route as much as I did, and found the same awful road as me, agreeing that it was worse than Moyale (although much shorter).
"And haven't seen another overlander since leaving Nairobi."
Me neither. (Then I met the two British cyclists a couple of days later.)
They were just leaving a petrol station and heading for Iringa, travelling at twice my speed, expecting to reach Cape Town in about six or eight weeks.
So I'm back on the main haul (for now), and have been busy with the bike.
Back whenever it was, when I inspected and temporarily repaired the chain roller (in Kigoma if I remember right) I also noticed that the gearbox sprocket won't make it to Cape Town. It's too worn.
No problem, I have a new spare. One tooth smaller at thirteen, in case lower gearing was needed anywhere. (It was, in the Western Desert, but I'm glad I didn't fit it there).
So I took the plunge the other day and changed it. I say "took the plunge" because these sprockets are attached with what is usually known as "Yamaha's b***dy great nut," which can sometimes, or often, be next to impossible to remove.
(As was the case on this very bike when I replaced the gearbox internals before departure. I had to drill and split the nut, finding the thread underneath had been flattened by "previous servicing!")
First I looked around to see if there was a garage with a compressed-air spanner tool. One of those will usually remove the "b***dy great nut" if it's troublesome. But there were none.
So I took the plunge and used my little tool kit.
I had taken the precaution, before departure, of not tightening up the nut to "Yamaha's b***dy great torque." Well, as far as is possible, because I've never owned and hardly ever used a torque wrench. I just tightened it an amount that seemed right for the small engine and "Yamaha's b***dy great tab-washer" that holds it nicely in place. Which needn't be all that tight, in my opinion.
And joy of joys - it loosened without putting any enormous strain on the secret method I use to stop the rear wheel turning on application of my little "b***dy great spanner."
So that job is done, and really, the one tooth less on the sprocket makes next to no difference and would have been a waste in the Western Desert. More teeth on the rear sprocket as well would have been needed to make any useful improvement in the sand there.
By the way, I found a significant portion of the Western Desert crammed and compressed between sprocket cover, sprocket, and gearbox casing. It all fell out, congealed and solid with old oil and cocoa powder, onto the nice lawn of the place I was staying in. Had to clear it up smartish before it got trodden into people's tents.
And the chain roller is as before. The bearing still rotates, the rubber is still there in more-or-less the right place, so it's still more-or-less doing it's job. While changing the sprocket I inspected the "damage" that was done to the sprocket cover when the bike was running without the guide roller in Egypt (and maybe before). I don't think it's an issue if the roller is removed. The cover is soft aluminium and has just been distorted a bit by the unguided chain. (Which is a pretty substantial size for a 250cc. Don't remember the size, bigger than my Honda 500, maybe the same as the Dominator 650cc).
But the roller is still there for now.
That job was followed by the usual chain-oiling, and oiling the clutch cable, which I find collects a lot of dirt and dust and slowly seizes up. It did that on the dirt road on the way to Mombasa, feeling as though strands of the cable had frayed and were jamming up the clutch action. But it was just lots of dirt and sand.
Then I saw the thing we all dread seeing, but that we're supposed to look for nearly every day - the empty hole where once a bolt head lived.
This one was supposed to hold the exhaust pipe to the frame - one of only two bolts that holds the entire exhaust in place. So with half of them gone a fair amount of extra stress was probably being exerted on the joint between exhaust and engine.
So it couldn't be ignored and led to a journey into the entirely uncharted territory of my "Margarine tub of Nuts, Bolts, Washers, Clips, Brackets and Pins," that lay undisturbed until now at the bottom of my luggage.
The bolt was quickly replaced and I'm continuing on the road to Malawi, now stopping in Tukuyu for a day or four, with, I hope, everything securely attached. Here, an oil and air-filter change will be needed before I continue to the border. The work doesn't seem to stop just now.
Oil consumption has been increasing steadily. It's still OK, but I have to top up twice between oil changes whereas before departure it was zero times.
Beau's bike was the same. And seeing the constant dust clouds kicked up by the traffic on the roads, and the sand in the Sahara, I've become convinced that the simple oil-impregnated foam airfilter fitted to these bikes isn't really up to the job on this sort of journey. Probably dirt has been getting into the engine and increasing the wear rate in the bore.
It's become common now to see van and truck drivers using compressed air lines at garages along the road to blow all the dirt out of their paper cartridge-type air filters. I think these paper filters are really needed in this sort of environment, but one of sufficient size would be too big to fit on a little bike like mine. So I'll have to increase the frequency of cleaning the filter, and probably increase the amount of oil I pour into it each time. Oh dear - it's such a messy job!
Posted by Ken Thomas at 03:01 PM
July 20, 2010 GMT
The Rubeho Mountains To Iringa
Some scenes from the Rubeho mountain range. There was plenty of dirt and gravel road to be negotiated, where the tarmac had been removed to place huge great drainage pipes underneath. This road follows a tiny high pass between the Rubeho and Udzungwa ranges.
There were four or five separate systems of alternate one-way working around the mountainsides, each about two miles long, controlled not by traffic lights but by enormous gates across the road and a system of walkie-talkies. There were many long queues of resting truck drivers and impatient bus drivers, but I was waved through every time, sometimes having the whole gravel road, or whole new tarmac road, to myself.
I had just entered a one-way section before taking this photo.
The big gate was closed behind me as there was no traffic following, but a long line of traffic ahead of me. I stayed there a while before realising the heavy lorries that were in front had disappeared into the distance. And the road here was just one bus-width wide.
If the last lorry ahead got through the distant gate without me in sight, the gateman there would unleash a roaring hoard of angry buses right into my path.
Oh dear, I had better get a move on, and hope nothing came round the tight turns hugging the mountainside.
Well, luckily this section was quite a few miles long, so I caught up the freight ahead OK, followed it all through the exit gate and the short way up to the next gate, where I was waved past it all to the front.
So that was alright then.
The narrow tarmac road winds up from the valley below.
Eventually the road comes out onto a high plateau shortly before Iringa. about 6000 feet up, so not very warm again. In fact, pretty cold at times.
I'm at a campsite a way outside of Iringa, very rural, and those African birds again.
These are a bright irridescent navy blue, not entirely rendered in the photographs, and quite timid. A flock of about twenty seem to live here and I caught a couple unawares.
Some more overlanders went past in the other direction in the midst of all the roadworks. Two British cyclists doing a loop starting and ending in Nairobi, round Lake Victoria more-or-less by the same route as me, except they went through Burundi from Rwanda and caught a ferry from Bujumbura to Kigoma.
"What was that Kigoma road like on your bike? Doing it both ways as well? In the bus, it was absolute hell. Nearly broke our backs, don't know how the bus doesn't fall apart."
So I replied that I quite enjoyed it (except for the eastern fifty miles)!
"That's what I'm going to do next, a trip on a motorbike. Where did you get all your luggage?"
So we did a quick inventory, which showed that only my tank panniers are new, the rest all second hand.
"So it shouldn't cost too much either! Right, we'll work on that when we get back home."
From Dodoma they had again followed the same route as me except they'd been on various safaris on Tanzania's 'Southern Circuit' around the highlands, and were now taking the direct route back to Nairobi.
It's not far from the Malawi border now but I think I'll stay in Tanzania a little longer, look for places to see around Mbeya.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 01:56 PM
Magic In Mikumi
After staying in pleasant and compact Dodoma a couple of days it was time to head off and explore the road to Morogoro. As far as I can tell, it's tarmac all the way to Cape Town now, unless I get sidetracked down dead-ends again.
A little before the Nguru Mountains there's a lot of volcanic scenery:
Then we climb up into the Nguru range:
It's not very high, but was quite cold up here when the clouds blocked out the sunshine, which was a bit of a surprise. I'm not used to cold now.
We dropped down into the plains again and the warmth, and Morogoro lay ahead, at the foot of the Ulugurus. I arrived here fairly early, so decided not to stop but to turn right, towards the southwest and Mikumi:
Heading southwest just after Morogoro. The Ulugurus keep to the left of the road for twenty five miles or so.
It looked as though I would reach Mikumi town in good time, so I stayed on the road as it went straight through the middle of Mikumi National Park on the way.
First on the bill were baboons wandering all over the road, they certainly like the tarmac. Followed by antelope with long horns, don't know the name. I had to snap them as soon as I stopped. If I get off the bike they scamper away.
Then this chap:
Our previous encounter with giraffe told us that they are oblivious to moving traffic, but will retreat smartly from anything that stops on the road. So I snapped this one quickly without getting off the bike.
He was followed by more antelope, some zebra and many more baboons.
Next, the Rubeho mountains came into view which I'll be climbing over - or through the passes - to reach Iringa:
This is the same picture before cropping. There's a hidden creature in there. See if you can spot it.
I didn't spot it, not until I was posting these pictures on the website, and it was just a little way across the road from me when I took the photograph. Those giraffe are certainly well camouflaged in this environment. Here it is on the extreme right hand side of the full picture:
I started the bike after taking this photo, completely unaware of any creatures around, rode a hundred yards, and there they all were, right next to the road!
I stopped quickly on the bridge just visible between the car and my bike in the pictures above, thinking I might blend in with the railings on the parapet. It seemed to work, because the five giraffe nearby stood rock still, staring at me, as I took these photos. In fact the nearest two edged a bit closer for a better view.
"Karibu Mr. Ken, what will you do with your bike when you reach Cape Town?"
"Sell it to me. Give me your bike! It'd be so handy for getting around!"
This one made a particularly close inspection of the bike's rear.
"I see you've lowered the height of it. Just right for my feet to reach the ground easily."
"You know it makes sense, you'll have more room in your garage when you return home to Whyteleafe!"
"You're a strange crowd in England, wandering around all on your own!" said Mr. Giraffe. "We don't do that here, do we Mr. Zebra?"
"I think we'd all fit on that, don't you?"
"I say, is that a GPS? I do love playing with those, don't you?"
"Karibu Mr. Ken, how are you? I see Mr. Giraffe didn't buy your bike!"
"I can see clouds in this mirror, it'll help to forecast the weather. Give me your bike!"
"Watch me! -- Elephant through the looking glass!"
"Three elephants through the looking glass!
Now, seeing what Mr. Ken's wearing on his head, the Mad Hatter must be here somewhere - I do hope we're in time for tea with The Queen of Hearts!"
"Pssssst! ..... should we tell him the football finished last week?"
Can't think of a name for this thing - it was in the campsite one sunny morning. Probably it's Mr. African Super-size Grasshopper.
Am in Iringa now on the way to Mbeya. Photos of scenery across the Rubeho Mountains coming up next if I can do them in this internet cafe. The service seems pretty good. Hold tight!
Posted by Ken Thomas at 12:08 PM
July 14, 2010 GMT
On To Dodoma
Just as I was leaving the hotel car park in Singida a Tanzanian visitor came to chat about my journey, and it turned out he was another civil engineer building roads.
"We're building a lot of new roads here, where are you going?"
I told him.
"Ah, you have bitumen all the way except for fifteen kilometres before Manyoni. That'll be ready soon. Where are you going from Dodoma?"
That was a handy question, because it would be another decision time there.
There's the 160-mile dirt road south to Iringa, which crosses one mountain range. I'd become doubtful about that since my recent dirt-road experiences and finding that buses take 8 to 10 hours to cover this, and they go a lot faster than me.
Or, the tarmac road, 340 miles via Morogoro, that from my map goes over two bigger mountain ranges so could be more scenic.
"Take the Morogoro road. It goes over the Rubeho mountains twice and round the Uluguru. Between that it crosses Mikumi National Park - you'll see a lot of wildlife there. Bitumen all the way. That Makatapora road is just a lot of hard work."
Yes, that was a handy encounter. He was the first person I'd met who knew about those two roads.
And he was right about the gravel section on the way to Dodoma, the remaining stretch of tarmac still under construction.
This central part of Tanzania was alive with volcanoes millions of years ago, which showered the land with rocks and boulders as well as lava. Consequently massive, strangely shaped boulders dot the landscape, some on their own, many in huge piles and clusters. Somehow or other, most of the largest boulders ended up balanced on their ends on top of piles of stones, or on one single even larger boulder. A strange landscape.
The top of a ridge at Chigongwe a little way before Dodoma gave something of a panorama.
At the top of the ridge towards Dodoma the road skirts round two volcanic rock sentinels. An enormous bolder perches on top of a cone of boulders on the left.
I did a U-turn to go back a few hundred yards to photograph these three mountains of boulders, looking back towards Manyoni.
A short while before this I passed a rider on a little motorbike who was selling a chicken to a lorry driver at the roadside. While I was wandering about on this ridge he went past, but returned a little later freewheeling down the hill towards me. He pointed to his petrol tank and waved that it was empty.
Well, I have an extra tap and length of pipe teed into the pipework on my bike, for filling my cooking stove, so it was easy to pour some petrol into his tank. Whereupon it flowed out again, through the float-chamber overflow pipe!
He was a bit flustered at that but I quickly took a screwdriver and bashed the float chamber with it, trusting that the old trick would work, (to free off the jammed float inside). Which it did.
We poured in another mugful and he tried the starter button which fired the engine straightaway.
He looked pleased now, more for his chickens I think.
It's usual between the villages to see cyclists carrying chickens either in or on a bamboo framework on the back of their bicycles. Sometimes it's a motorbike carrying them. This rider had more than a dozen, tied by the ankles to the back of his bike. They all looked fairly placid, obviously completely unaware of how exciting it is to ride on the back of a motorbike(!) But I guess they don't survive long like that and he has to sell them whilst still alive. For which he needs petrol.
So off he sped to find more customers.
I turned round again towards Dodoma and finished taking some more snaps.
Now in Dodoma, it's the capital of Tanzania in name only I think.
About the size of Caterham. The tarmac road comes in, around a large central roundabout, and out again.
Immediately around the roundabout are the parliament building, some government buildings, the HQ of the main political party, two churches, a mosque, and a few banks.
All the other roads are sand which lead to dozens of hotels (they say it fills up when parliament is in session) and the usual shops, restaurants and food kiosks. They say not to take photographs anywhere.
So Dar es Salaam is certainly Tanzania's first city.
There was no internet working yesterday, so I'll try again now, see what we find.
Then off to Morogoro if all goes well.
Well, am in the internet cafe, at the end of a sandy street the first half of which was a continuous line of mobile phone and top-up shops on both sides. Here in the cafe the fiddler's elbow is working well. Despite being the capital city, and this place seemingly arranged and furnished to attract the government workers, the internet comes and goes, comes and goes. But if you read this I got it posted at last........
PS. In Singida, The Great Plastic Bag Clearout bore fruit, with the help of jettisoning other bits and pieces over the weeks. I have got rid of the two small camera bags that were hung over the seat as additional panniers, carrying mainly tools. I bought those in Khartoum to take the contents of my tank bag which had become a liability rather than an asset. So have achieved a net reduction in luggage, at last.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 11:08 AM
That roundabout in Nzega was truly a remarkable sight and I wish I'd taken a photo.
It was like emerging from dusty bushes and dirt tracks into a smart European town, a "through the wardrobe" experience. And really, my first thought was, "Well! What sort of town is Nzega?"
But I was very weary after that hell of a ride, the road ahead really was straight and wide and I felt an immediate need to check that I could actually still ride on flat tarmac at a speed greater than twelve miles-an-hour without hitting a vicious speed-wobble. It was like when you fall off for some silly reason, and straightaway want to pick yourself up, get back on and go, to check that everything still works properly in bike and rider.
So I sped on from Nzega wondering what I'd find over the ridge. I had no idea how far the tarmac would go, my maps showed dirt most of the way. But this road goes all the way to Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania, and was being laid with tarmac as long ago as three years.
There was little traffic. And being a road that leads to the capital, there were a couple of cheery police check points on the way where I learnt that it was probably too late to reach Singida. But Igunga sounded a nice sort of small place. And it was. With tarmac all the way there, a nice sort of small hotel, four pounds for a big room with bathroom, bike parked right outside and cafeteria next door. And just to add a finishing touch, there was no running water. The owner didn't know when it would return but he'd filled up big plastic drums from the little well he had in his front garden. So that was all right then.
The ride to Igunga was pretty flat, savanah-type country, but after Igunga it would become more interesting.
That next morning the road dropped into a wide valley with tiny river at the bottom, then rose fairly sharply and twistily to climb over the end of the Kidero Mountain range.
Start of the climb.
I got the impression here that this was going to be quite a climb, as heavy lorries and trailers were descending at a speed slower than I think I had seen on any hills so far in Africa, some towing the smell of hot brakes behind them.
Leaving the savanah of Igunga behind.
In a dry river bed a family of baboons have made a home.
Perhaps they'd like more tarmac too, they find interesting stuff in its crevices.
But they're not very sure about parked motorbikes.
Beyond the summit, the region of Singida comes into view.
This was the forth day of riding in a row, on roads varying between enjoyably difficult to impossibly difficult, and a few days off were needed which I hoped for in Singida town.
It's another easy-going medium-sized African town.
And 'easy-going' is like this: I wanted to buy a Tanzania sim card for my phone and happened upon the local Vodacom shop. Outside, a young chap was chatting to a security guard - I think there was a bank next door - and greeted me in the usual way. Whereupon I saw the "Closed" sign on the shop door.
"Yes, it's Saturday. Shops close for half day," said my greeter. Very civilised. "Open again on Monday."
But as usual he wanted to know what I wanted, where from, how long in Africa and so on.
"I have a Vodafone sim in my phone but it doesn't work too well in Tanzania. I need a local one."
"That's no problem, come inside, we'll sort you out."
He led me into the shop, where I found a full-blown spring-cleaning operation in progress. Staff were even shampooing the chairs. There was a spot where the floor was dry and one dry chair to sit on.
"This is what you want. That'll be fifty pence." (A thousand Tanzanian shillings). "Give me your phone, I'll activate it for you."
And he did.
Then I remembered what I'd come out for.
"I'm looking for an internet cafe but haven't found one anywhere."
(I'd done a circuit of the town's shopping streets, looked around the bus station where I'd been directed, but never saw one).
"There's one three doors down, on the corner. I'll take you there."
And he did.
On the corner was a plain building with one window and one door that didn't look open. There was no sign or any indication at all of what was inside.
I suppose that's easy-going as well. Singida seems to be like that - they don't expect many visitors so don't put signs outside their business premises.
But inside was a fully equipped internet set-up with all the computers being used by people who looked like they were doing their University weekend homework.
The attendant rushed around connecting up another computer for me, but it didn't work very well. It connected, then it didn't, then it did, and didn't, and so on. After a short while another attendant arrived and tried to fix it.
"No, I think this computer's not right. Here, I'll connect this up and you can use it."
It was his smart laptop that he came in with. He turned out to be the owner of the business, and spoke about the best English I've heard so far in Tanzania.
"Take as long as you like, I don't need to use it."
Not only was his English very good, but he looked strangely familiar.
On this journey I've often seen people in the streets who look strangely familiar, bringing names like Chris Eubank, or Mike Tyson, or Linford Christy, or Frank Bruno to mind.
But it wasn't a sportsman I was looking for this time.
I completed my email and blogging things and closed the browser window, which revealed a photo on the screen behind.
It was a photo taken in the internet cafe, of the owner sitting behind the cash desk, with the pose, expression and clothing set up to be the spitting image of 'Mr. T' from the 'A Team'.
Well, I was glad I found the answer to that one!
"We haven't the faintest idea when you came in," said Mr. T. "How long do you think you've been? Let's call it a pound." (Two thousand shillings). So that was pretty easy-going.
"Now, I'd like to talk about your motorbike outside and your journey."
And that was easy-going as well.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 10:10 AM
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 01:42 PM
The Mining Town Of Kahama
By the time I reached Kahama I was pretty tired. That is, very tired. But I found decent oil at a garage and inside the hotel compound was a suitable place to do an oil change, which was due. I've been living on this bike for ten months now, maybe four or more to go, so I realise more and more that discipline with servicing is the key, and when I find myself in a suitable location to do it then I should. Or must.
I was halfway through, a plastic bottle full of old oil next to the bike and tools all around, when the hotel clerk came out to say I should order what I want for dinner now so that the ingredients could be arranged, even though it was only four o'clock. This seems the norm in Tanzania. As soon as you arrive at a small hotel, tell the kitchen what you want so they have time to go out and buy it, otherwise your only choice will be what they already have, which might not be much.
Well, that involved walking round the corner of the hotel entrance to the outdoor bar area, past the bar and up to the kitchen kiosk. The table next to the bar was occupied by a cheery group of locals who immediately insisted I take a seat with them.
"Hey, Jambo! Welcome to Tanzania! How are you? We saw you ride your bike in earlier. Don't hide away, come and take this seat here! Welcome to Tanzania! Karibu!"
I knew there was no way I could ignore that. African greetings had to be exchanged. Or else!
So after more "How are you - fine thanks - how are you - welcome to Kahoma - take this seat - karibu - how are you?" I did my best to explain that my little bike had been good to me so I had to be good to it and I was in the middle of a small job and would definitely take up their kind offer very shortly - and I also had a two-inch coating of red dust all over my clothes that I really needed to do something about. They seemed to be OK with that, if maybe a little disappointed.
So the oil was changed, everything put away, and I sat down with Christopher, a mining engineer who'd worked all over Africa and a year in Australia. Kahama is a main town in this extensive Tanzanian mining area where all sorts of minerals, including diamonds, are extracted.
With Christopher were Anthony, an electrical contractor with one of the Tanzanian power companies, and Charles, who I never found out what he did, and four hotel staff. Another thing I've learned about Tanzania is that it's normal for staff to drink with customers at the table. So we had two young lads who were the hotel maintenance team and two waitresses, none of whom spoke any English.
There was the usual stuff about my journey, how far, how long, are you working? on your own? why Africa? why Tanzania? welcome! do you have a business card? and so on.
"Where were you last night?"
"I stayed in Kibondo, and I was six days in Kigoma before that."
"No wonder you're covered in red dust! That road from Kibondo is the very worst!"
Christopher laughed at that, adding, "Yes, I went to school in Kigoma. Did you see the Livingstone monument? All the English like to see that!"
After a while Christopher said he'd have to go, he's also a preacher at the Seventh Day Adventist church nearby and he had a sermon to deliver, and Charles went with him. Then I thought the music being played in the bar was familiar so asked Anthony if it was Tanzanian.
"No, it's Ugandan. Very popular band."
When I met Roy and his friend a week before in Kigoma, a music concert was showing on the TV and Roy said it was a Congolese band, and a lot of Tanzanian music originates from Congolese roots.
Back at this bar, another song came on that I instantly recognised from Kenya. I'd heard it maybe once in Nairobi, but in Kericho and Bungoma it was played in every bar that had music, in the street, and sometimes four or five times in a row in the bar near the hotel I was in. But I never found out the name. Not many people spoke English and no one could give me the English name. And I forgot to ever ask Nelson, the insurance salesman.
I asked Anthony.
"It's called 'Marriage of Problems'. It's Kenyan. Very popular there, and here as well. They'll probably play it twice or three times! People often cry when they hear it! The singer is Tonny Myadundo."
Earlier we'd scribbled down names and email addresses on scraps of paper to exchange.
"Give me that piece of paper again."
On it he scribbled 'Mwanza Music House', 'Kahama Branch', and a phone number.
"In a couple of days I'm going to Mwanza to do a job for these people. It'll be about three weeks. But right now I'm working on a job at their branch here. I'll be there tomorrow morning. If you can get there they probably have CDs by this singer. Maybe the Ugandan band one as well."
And sure enough, 'Marriage of Problems' played again - and a third time. It's in Swahili but the tone of the lyrics seems to indicate it has a very deep philosophical message.
It was then time for Anthony to leave and he spontaneously gave me a very big African hug. I'm beginning to learn about Tanzania.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 01:34 PM
Now You See It, Now You Don't
Or - Scenes From the Road, Kigoma to Nyakanazi Return Journey.
(I've been a while without internet, and am now in Singida, roughly in the middle of the country. But we'll continue where we left off).
I realise now that on my journey to Kigoma, the first third of the road from Nyakanazi (about seventy miles as far as Kibondo) was by far the worst part.
I departed Kigoma after six days there, zoomed along Roy's new tarmac for about fifteen miles, reached the dirt, and started to wonder why it was that on the previous Tuesday I had seriously thought about turning back and not visiting Kigoma at all. Traffic allowing (that is, pedestrians and cyclists) I was averaging close to 40mph, sometimes reaching 45mph. There were a few corrugated lengths which slowed me down pretty quickly, but otherwise it was a brilliant ride.
But there was still the dust.......
You go out for a pleasant cycle ride in the morning sunshine
........ and look what you get!
(Yes, those bicycles can nip in and out of the drainage ditches at a whim .... be blowed if I can)
There's even a car lurking that seems to be enjoying the taste of the good African earth.
When you come up behind a slow heavy truck, this is all you can see......
Actually locating the back of the truck is a little easier than charting the route around it.
But for all that, the 140 miles from Kigoma was a pretty good ride. Lots of people on the road and quite a few villages. And yes, the road condition wasn't quite as good as this in the vicinity of those villages, but still not bad.
I never saw much of the sugar cane harvest in Uganda that I was told about, but it's returned in this part of Tanzania.
But not carted around on huge purpose-made wagons.
No, it's carried very gracefully on peoples' heads (men and women). About half a dozen canes tied together, seven foot long, balanced aloft in line with the direction of walking. And these people even manage to dodge out of the way of speeding buses without so much as a stumble, or more importantly, turning their heads, which would send the canes right into the path of the buses. So there's not much damage done to the road by this sugar cane harvest I'm glad to see.
Two other commodities are noticeable on the road, carried on both bicycles and motorbikes; rolls of corrugated steel roofing sheet, and double mattresses.
There's no doubt that two-wheel vehicles have evolved in Africa to easily carry as much as the average car - if not more. Motorbikes carry three double mattresses, bicycles only one - but who's counting. All on this sandy, bumpy, dusty road.
Corrugated steel is carried three sheets at a time, rolled up, fixed across the rear carrier. Slightly diagonally, so the vehicle width is about six foot rather than the full seven foot six. That removes the need to have one of those "Wide Vehicle" signs hung on the back.
I ventured into a shallow drainage ditch for more photos. It doesn't look it, but there's quite a steep camber just there, and a thick layer of loose dust.
Now you see it......
....... now you don't.
About 20 miles before Kibondo, my overnight stop, the surface starts to deteriorate, with the return of the main feature, obscured transverse rainwater ditches and camouflaged holes full of soft dust. Then numerous hills and valleys which get ravaged in the rainy season, which I assume is why large stones and cobbles become an additional feature. I guess to try to keep the surface intact during the rains.
One of many river valleys on the approach to Kibondo.
Mix sharp stones and cobbles with cocoa powder and pound vigorously for a month or more, adding lots more cocoa powder frequently to completely hide the loose stones underneath.
The next morning, departing Kibondo, I knew immediately why I nearly abandoned my visit to Kigoma last week. The nice dirt road of the previous day had changed into a mass of loose stone chippings and thick soft dust taking the form of deep holes, corrugations, transverse ditches, ruts and every other possibility you can imagine.
I was careful this time to look out for those deep channels right across the road, cut by the rains and filled with stones and thick dust. But distracted by the concentration needed, I found myself a couple of times in a concealed rut which I could see became deeper and deeper ahead, and it was too late to steer out. And braking wasn't really an option either. These ruts are the width of a double truck tyre, filled with loose stones in the bottom with a layer of soft dust, maybe three inches deep, on top. The nearest you can get, I think, to the ubiquitous 'riding on marbles'. So I quickly made sure to identify those in good time.
I found this pretty tiring on top of yesterday's relatively easy (but 140 miles) dirt ride. So I was persuaded to stop a couple of times for photos, when I could find a spot to park the bike without too much paddling about in deep powder on the edge of the road.
There are a lot of holes here but you can only see the one not full of dust. That's how it was, nothing much visible until too late.
Going up the hill ahead, the tyre tracks are dust and stone-filled ruts. On both sides of those are steep rutted cambers dug by the rains, so zero choice of line here. Hope nothing comes the other way.
More hidden holes here........
..... that even the big truck has to zigzag round, squeezing past my parked bike in the process. About half a mile an hour here so not much dust off its wheels, thankfully.
And a local villager finds it easier on foot I think.
I rode past this spot at first, turned round and came back to take the photos. Because of the angle of the sun, from the other direction all this was completely invisible, just a bland orange mass of dust.
The road condition deteriorated more and more towards Nyakanazi where the tarmac returned, and I thought no wonder I was reticent about riding this road. But the two-thirds between Kibondo and Kigoma were OK.
I received a couple of those 'signs' or 'messages of fate', or maybe it was the same one twice.
On the way to Kigoma, on the bad stretch, one of quite a few mini-buses hurtled the other way with the words "Cape Town" boldly emblazoned across the top of the windscreen.
"Maybe it's actually going there," I thought. But not very likely. Ten days away at the very best.
On my return ride, on the good stretch, the same mini-bus hurtled the other way once again.
I'll take that as a good omen.
So then it was a longish stretch of good tarmac to Kahoma, but even then some dirt intervened. Three stretches were being resurfaced and bridges rebuilt, the longest being about four miles of dirt just before Kahoma, but in good condition.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 01:10 PM
July 05, 2010 GMT
On Lake Tanganyika
It's not surprising this lake was one of the centres of 19th century African exploration. It's almost like an inland sea. So I visited Ujiji and the David Livingstone monument.
Some photos from the site:
Livingstone monument. Small museum behind.
The inscription above the outline of Africa says "David Livingstone."
Bronze plaque on the right of the monument, contributed by the Royal Geographical Society in 1927.
The Burton - Speke monument in the same compound.
The compound. Burton - Speke monument on the far right.
It seems that back in 1871 the lake shore was right here by the monument. Now it's 800 yards away as the waters have receded. The sandy town of Ujiji is right on the water's edge, so it too must have moved over the years.
If I read the information in the rudimentary museum correctly (but it did have some interesting photos and an original manuscript letter from Livingstone saying how depressed he was through illness and the activities of slave traders in the area), he died in a hut near here. And according to newspaper cuttings on display there's quite a dispute about the route his body took to return to the sea, and home.
I'm fairly certain about my immediate onward route, even more so now after an interesting chat in a restaurant on Thursday night.
I went to the one bar that's reasonably within walking distance. Yes, there's food they told me so I took a table. It was all out in the open air.
Immediately two local men called over, "Look, we're strangers from other places, do it the African way, take a seat here."
So I did.
Roy was a civil engineer from the opposite corner of Tanzania working on a project in Kigoma. His new-found friend, who's name I've already forgotten and could never spell anyway, had also just arrived at the bar, and was an economist with the local government in Kasulu, where I'd stayed before arriving in Kigoma.
"We've both stayed in England, you're a strange crowd there, going into bars and sitting on your own!" said Roy. "We don't do that here."
Roy's friend explained that he had arrived in town that morning for the local-government conference, which was the event going on that I'd heard about.
"I came into this bar about an hour ago, met Roy, decided I'd rather stay here the night instead of going home, and already Roy's found a place for me to stay. His driver will be here soon to take me there."
"I've stayed in England," he continued, "I did my degree at London University. How long would it have taken me to find a place to stay over there? Impossible!"
I replied that I worked for quite a while in the same area, even used the university swimming pool lunchtimes.
"Has it changed much since 1998 when I was there?"
"Have you got a couple of days to hear about it?" I replied.
They were interested in my journey, whereupon Roy said, "I saw a visitor yesterday in town, riding a little motorbike with so much luggage on it it took up more room than him. I thought - another crazy foreigner!"
"That was probably me."
Roy offered a description.
"Yep, that was me."
"Well, good luck to you!"
Later, after they'd made sure I paid the local's price for my dinner, not the foreigner's price, and Roy's driver had come to take his friend to his overnight lodgings, I asked Roy what project he was working on.
"Well, you rode on it."
It was the fifteen miles of tarmac leading into town. Snaking down the steep escarpment, over about five bridges, and most of it four lanes wide.
"It's been eighteen months, but almost finished now. I should be home in three weeks."
Either he didn't know why it was four lanes wide (plus shoulders) or he wasn't saying, but the width was a surprise to me after the preceeding thirty miles of dirt from Kasulu which was a lane and a half wide, no shoulder.
"The President was here a couple of months ago, saying there was enough money in the kitty to extend it all the way to Kasulu. So I may be back."
"Any chance of that being done by Monday?" I tentatively enquired.
"About the same as England ever winning a World Cup again!"
So there you have it. I now know the builder of the first fifteen miles of runway-quality tarmac out of Kigoma, and that it'll still be 180 miles of dirt thereafter.
You come across huge quantities of optimism in Africa, and these two characters were the embodiment of it.
I haven't had much of a break here yet. Thursday was getting oriented, finding an internet place, visiting Ujiji, and looking at other hotels (the place I'm in said they would be full on Friday, but now they're not, so I'm still here). Friday was bike servicing and repair day, so I may stay until Monday.
You can get used to these sunsets from your bedroom window. Here's another:
On the way here, on the long dirt road, I thought I heard some new noise from the bike. Difficult to tell with all the road bumps and luggage shaking. Probably just paranoia again. But no, something was going on, and eventually I decided it could be chain noise. But I'd oiled and checked it in Kigali and all was ok.
So I stopped for a check and thought of the guide roller, that fell off in Egypt's Western Desert. It's well hidden behind lots of luggage so it's easily forgotten.
Sure enough it didn't look quite right, it looked like the rubber had parted company from the bearing.
So another chore on Thursday was looking for a place selling rubber hose. It might be useful for a repair. But I found none.
And on Friday I removed it, to find the new journal bearing fitted in Aswan had collapsed.
In fact it now looked the same as the old bearing I replaced in Aswan. The steel dust seals had disintegrated and the cage was broken in a couple of places.
Suddenly I realised that the old bearing, back in Aswan, that I thought was a bicycle wheel style item that should never really have been fitted, was in fact originally a proper journal bearing which had also collapsed, the seals and cage having completely disappeared.
Memories of an internet forum on TTR250s came back, with people saying they had completely discarded the guide roller because they broke too easily. And even a vague memory of someone finding a much better replacement, in Australia I think.
So it was now obvious to me that this guide roller is a bit of a weak point. The bearing has no lubrication, is out in the open being constantly clobbered by the chain, specially on dirt roads, so can't last very long.
The rubber roller was also a bit battered. I used some special rubber tape I had to make the roller a tighter fit on the remains of the bearing, fitted an extra thrust washer to take up the slack, stuffed the bearing full of grease and bolted it all back.
So we'll see how it looks when I get back to Nyakanazi and tarmac roads.
While at it, on the left hand side of the bike, I changed the spark plug. I thought maybe the higher altitude running might improve with a new one, as the old plug has now done 13,000 miles, the total mileage since Whyteleafe.
One thing led to another, and the fuel filter is on the left hand side, so I removed that as well to fit a new one.
Then a senior moment. I thought I had checked that both petrol taps were off first, so couldn't understand why petrol gushed out of the disconnected filter and wouldn't stop. I checked the taps again, one each side of the petrol tank. I found the left hand one switched to reserve, despite the big stickers I had put on the tank showing which way was 'On', 'Off', and 'Reserve'. How long it had been like that I don't know but it must have been a long time. And between the Rwandan border and here there were very few petrol stations, with long stretches between. I was glad I had filled up everytime rather than rely on my reserve supply, because there wouldn't have been one! Will have to remember to get that right next time I use that left hand tap.
I've been conscious of the need to have a clean air filter with the bike running rich at high altitude, but the road here made that all but impossible.
When a bus or truck goes past in the opposite direction, the dust cloud really is impenetrable. I even saw more than one motorbike rider wearing an industrial style breathing mask - they probably ride this road everyday.
I found that you have no option but to stop when something comes the other way, otherwise for a short while visibility is absolutely zero. So I turn the engine off to stop all the dust being sucked in.
Then I realised, while I was stationary waiting for the air to clear, that most other road users were doing the same, that is, pedestrians and cyclists, temporarily stopped and using a cloth or scarf to breathe through.
But what about a slow lorry in front? When you catch up with one, there's no choice but to overtake. You can't follow, you'll not be able to breathe after a while, nor will the bike.
So you have to choose your moment when the wind blows the dust a bit away from the overtaking path, try to make out if the surface is OK, and go. But the great clouds of dust billowing from the lorry's nine huge wheels (or more if it's a double trailer) still chokes everything, including visibility and my air filter.
But after a while on this road I learned that the lorry drivers follow a nifty convention. I noticed a couple of times, with nothing coming the other way, that a slow lorry ahead would keep to the right hand side of the road. After double checking what country I was in and confirming to myself, yes we are driving on the left, I noticed that the wind was blowing from left to right, keeping the left hand side of the lorry relatively clear of dust and making overtaking (on the inside) a safer possibility.
A pretty good idea and another African lesson to remember, but only of use when the wind is blowing across the road. Mostly there's no wind.
So am now taking a proper break, that is, nipping into town for a haircut. I saw three barber shops together on the way in, all with fancy African signs outside, "Specialists in All Styles," and went back there. But it's Saturday and two were closed, the people in the drapery shop showed me the one that was still open.
The haircut, with all the detailed attention that seems to come with one in Africa, (although explaining things here isn't straightforward, only a few people speak English, then it's fairly limited), came to the princely sum of seventy-five pence!
I thought I had read somewhere that Tanzania is relatively expensive, but here in the far west that doesn't seem to be the case.
The hotel is nine pounds, for a big room like this:
Opening out onto the beach here:
.... via the screened terrace here:
Sunsets as before, over the lake:
And VIP shaded parking for my bike just by the beach entrance.
View from the beach in the other direction:
On the top of the headland there's a hotel which is expensive, USD60 per night they say, and restaurant to match.
So I tried the restaurant for my day off. Very smart and upmarket, three courses, two beers, endless views, for eight pounds. There are cheaper places in town, dinner for under two pounds, but there's only meat and chips, or meat and ugali (African maize meal), available. No vegetables. Sometimes you need a bit more. The eight pounds up there gets you two beers, big salad for starters and lots of vegetables, and ice cream!
So will stay a little longer maybe.
Here's a little more of Lake Tanganyika from up at the posh hotel:
Looking north to the far side of the bay. Kigoma is over to the right inside the bay, Burundi straight ahead in the far distance, Congo way over to the left out of sight. You have to be up on the escarpment to see it.
Further into the bay. Outskirts of Kigoma on the right.
Looking south. Ujiji just beyond the headland. Congo way over to the right.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 02:13 PM
July 01, 2010 GMT
From Ngara the next morning I set off south to the T junction at Nyakanazi fifty miles away. This would be decision time.
Right for the two hundred mile dirt 'main road' to Kigoma, or left for the tarmac to Kahama, Dodoma and thence Malawi.
I went right as planned, and immediately onto a mediocre dirt road. That deteriorated gradually but insidiously as it left Nyakanazi and its surrounds over a distance of maybe ten miles. It was dry, but became a mixture of everything from pretty good, to deep potholes hardly visible and dust clouds churned up by heavy articulated lorries reducing visibility to a couple of yards as they trundled past.
The ground is a uniform orange-red, the sun high in the sky, so there are no shadows or visible contours to reveal the presence of pot holes, deep rainwater channels, corrugations, or a new entertaining feature, holes and ruts full of talcum powder.
The dust is everywhere, tons and tons of it, and it fills the irregularities in the surface making it impossible to be sure of what is coming up. And riding through piles of it is, I suppose, the advanced lesson after you've learnt how to ride through sand. Which I haven't.
Then there's the main feature - a pair of deep ditches cut by rainwater right across the road, invisible until you're on top of them, followed immediately by a big hole full of deep dust. And sometimes with a speeding bus going the other way towing an impenetrable dust cloud behind it. After nearly being thrown off twice by this combination I was thinking seriously of turning around, missing out on Lake Tanganyika, and heading back to the tarmac. I would, after all, have to return this way after visiting Kigoma. Except for the ferry, it's a dead-end.
But two things persuaded me otherwise, first I wasn't in a hurry, and second I hoped that the road would improve once we got well away from the traffic of the town. Which more or less was the case. Except there were a few more towns between Nyakanazi and Kigoma.
And between towns it wasn't all straightforward. Max speed here most of the time was around 33 mph with occasional stretches where almost 40 mph was possible, but this had to be tempered with extreme caution as a thick layer of dust covered everything, all uniform in colour, effectively hiding all obstructions underneath.
And as you'd expect in a country subject to two rainy seasons a year, the road is cambered throughout its length, sloping down from the centre towards drainage ditches along each side.
The deep and barely visible dust holes slow you down immediately and a bit fiercly, but also remove all steering ability. And it's the deeper drainage ditches alongside the road that you head for. So even when the road is feeling pretty good and secure, a lot of caution is called for, especially when you're on your own.
On the exit of one town, the road ahead suddenly changed in appearance. It had been newly graded! Bliss! In places it was better than African tarmac. But the road was hilly and bendy and not visible very far into the distance, so I wondered how long this would last. Around which bend would the old surface return? Or would it continue like this for the entire 150 miles remaining to Kigoma?
After five miles I found out, but had the useful escort of a heavy fuel tanker ahead to help blaze a trail.
The road is graded by a huge digger shovelling massive piles of earth, a couple of feet deep or more, onto the surface. Then a road roller rolls it down, followed by the grader planing it all level and the roller rolling once more.
Well, around a bend and at the foot of a hill I caught up with the tanker. It had started to negotiate the hill, about a mile long, that had just been covered with piles of earth two feet deep. The road roller was by the roadside, with the grader also in attendance, but both doing nothing.
Well, the tanker did an excellent job, at about half a mile an hour, of leaving a neat pair of perfectly flat tyre tracks in its wake, just right for me to follow easily behind. And at the top of the hill we found out why this bit of road was being regraded. A series of hills and valleys stretched out ahead for fifteen miles, the road weaving up and down them, and the recent rainy season had done its worst.
So that was a pretty slow and shaky 15 miles.
Thereafter it was a regular pattern, fairly OK outside the towns, tricky and slow going through them.
There were two hotel possibilities that I knew of, at Kibondo and Kasulu.
On reaching the first of these I was confident of reaching Kasulu, another hundred miles, in good time, and ended up there for the night in a pretty good modern hotel, which was a surprise to find, and only five pounds including breakfast.
So Wednesday morning found me leaving Kasulu for the final fifty miles to Kigoma. It was the same as the previous day, except for one brilliant stretch of maybe ten miles, nice and smooth, maybe recently graded, and also almost devoid of pedestrians and cyclists.
These are the main users of this road and have to be taken into account when deciding if you might have to swerve suddenly, or as suddenly as you can, to avoid a large hole ahead. Half the bicycles are carrying massive loads, bananas, firewood, water, bales of hay, you name it, and they too are prone to swerving around the ruts and ridges. I never saw one fall off, but if one did, carrying three big branches of bananas, it would be quite a task to avoid it all.
So on that nice smooth and quiet section I was able to relax concentration a little, and the idea of taking a photo or two entered my head.
Stopping to take photos isn't actually that easy. There's not a lot of traffic but buses and trucks pass regularly. There are the drainage ditches either side, and the road slopes steeply into them at its edge. There are pedestrians and cyclists going by as well.
And when the going is tricky, stopping for a photo is the last thing in your head.
Anyway, this is the scene about halfway between Kasulu and Kigoma.
The road camber here slopes steeply into the drainage ditch, so this is as close to the edge as I could get otherwise the bike wouldn't sit on its sidestand.
Taking photos anywhere out of doors in this part of Africa has to be done with care. For instance there's a large refugee camp between Kasulu and Kigoma, off the road towards the border with Burundi. I was well past it when taking these photos. The presence of that camp might have been the reason for this stretch of road having been graded.
In Kigoma there are white UNHCR Toyotas to be seen on every street.
Fifteen miles before Kigoma was this:
Tarmac! Somewhere over the edge is Lake Tanganyika, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the far distance.
The tarmac went all the way down to Kigoma, via dozens of hairpin bends.
There's beach camping in Kigoma, but down a five-minute flight of steps from the nearest access track and some way out of town. And only two pounds cheaper than the hotel I was lucky enough to find a room in.
There's some sort of government conference on in town, so many hotels are full.
But I found this:
Sunset over Lake Tanganyika from the terrace of my room!
Posted by Ken Thomas at 10:55 AM