Two wheels is the only way to see the real Africa

Posted by: admin | Tuesday 16 July 2013 01:52 pm No Comments

From close encounters with hippos and zebras to husking sunflower seeds and watching the sun rise over Mt Kilimanjaro, cycle tourists say two wheels is the only way to see the real Africa.

For Kevin Searle, it was a thrill to spot the Big Five – lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards and rhinos – but the highlight of his trip to Tanzania in east Africa was a casual interaction with a village elder.

Kevin, 53, called out the Swahili greeting ‘shikamoo’ – reserved for elderly people – to a man in flowing white robes walking nearby with a group of tribesmen.

The younger men cracked up laughing – it turns out the elder was only 60 himself – and his juniors ribbed him about being addressed so respectfully. The ensuing discussion bridged cultures, faiths and 8oookm of distance and resulted in Kevin being shown the man’s mud brick home.

Kevin, a retired lawyer from Christchurch, and others who took the 16-day tour with Global Adventure Guide, say the off-the-beaten track bike trip gave them plenty of chances for such real-life encounters, as well as an up-close experience of the scenery and wildlife.

Reasonable fitness was essential with stretches of red dirt tracks, sometimes rutted and some climbs over the 560 kilometre route. One day’s riding is a total distance of only 11km, but with an altitude gain of 1100m. Kevin says many chose to walk that section.

The company gives the tour an overall grade of 5/6 (‘active’) for intensity and fitness required, with 9/10 being extreme.

Nelson woman Margaret Gowans, who did the trip with her husband, said training rides from Nelson to Mapua and back – a hilly 65km – were good preparation, although her own efforts were curtailed by breaking her ribs on a bike trainer in a spin class a few weeks before the trip.

Nonetheless, she says working out on a stationary bike meant she could handle the distances of up to 115km a day.

“It was a huge challenge,” she says, “because the roads were so rough. At one point it was downhill for 30km and it was so rough we felt as if our eyeballs were shaking around in their sockets.”

But Margaret says that compared with other ways to travel in Africa, this was an emotional trip.

“You feel like you’ve been in the heart of the lives of the African people and for me that was more important than just going to a game park.” Not that the animals weren’t spectacular.

“I absolutely adored the zebras. They were everywhere,” she says. “And giraffes were also running along when we were cycling, not only in the game parks.” Wherever the group of about 20 went, children thronged to see them, with sometimes a whole school coming out to get a closer view of the pale-skinned people passing through their village.

“We’d been advised to take papers, pencils, stickers, books and balloons. And they delighted in the simplest things,” Margaret says.

“Even the mothers were saying, ‘Could we have one as well?’” Kevin, who is on the board of Trade Aid, says while poverty was evident, he could see the difference investment was making in Africa, although he realised it was only “a drop in the bucket”.

He says the trip felt ethical in a way mass market tourism might not. After the three tours of 2010, the guiding company gave the German Bergamont mountain bikes to an orphanage, local charity New Life Foundation’s Fountain of Zoe orphanage. The charity decided to sell them and use the proceeds.

Kevin says the gesture felt genuine. “The spirit of it was fantastic. It was like a trip with social responsibility as well, and that fits my belief system.” Both Margaret and Kevin recall a stunning sunrise after a night’s camping in Mtae village in the foothills of the Usambara Mountains.

“The camp was perched on the edge of a cliff,” Kevin says. “The next morning the valley filled up with mist and the African sun rose through it with Mt Kilimanjaro in the background.

“It was absolutely spectacular.”

Accommodation along the way ranged from two-man tents, to hotels and a luxury safari camp and included stay-overs at a school and a mission station – where some of the women helped the nuns husk sunflower seeds.

You might expect teenager Leon Junghanns, 14, to be a little blasé about international travel; the 14-year-old is son of Global Adventure Guide owner Ralph Junghanns and had previously been to southern Africa, Australia, Vietnam and Germany with his family.

“I wasn’t sure about it,” he says, “because at first I thought . . . it’s just biking a national park. So I had to do a bit of homework to find out about where we were going.”

The reality was much more exciting than his first impressions of dust, dirt and “the vastness of it”, he says. He liked the hippos best.

“Just because they were humongous and we saw them across a lake about 15m away and just lying there. They were just chilling in the sun pretty much.”

He also enjoyed seeing lions lying in the road, a huge owl sitting in a tree – “three times the size of New Zealand’s morepork”, an aardvark and springhares – creatures that look like a cross between a rabbit and a kangaroo.

For Leon, a keen mountain-biker, the cycling was easily achievable. As a teenager, he says it was a bigger challenge being away from the technology that connects him socially; texting, Facebook, computers generally.

“But in a way that was good too; getting away from everything,” he says.

At the end of the day, when support staff cooked a meal, adults helped themselves to the beer fridge and riders put on a mock Tour de France awarding of the yellow jersey, Leon says he too felt a sense of achievement.

“Once you’d finished the day, you were stoked,” he says.

The final leg of the trip is to the island of Zanzibar – a beach resort on the Indian ocean that contrasts sharply with mainland Tanzania.

Ralph Junghanns says it is like Fiji “but with 2000 years of history, spices, and a 98 per cent Muslim population” and the contrast is one of the things that makes the Tanzania tour a success.

While the riders agree they valued a mix of the people, the cycling, the sights and the wildlife, the very appeal of a cycle tour is a world away from the Tanzanians’ own lives.

As one local said to Kevin: “The people in the village are very puzzled. Why would you ride your bikes when there’s a perfectly good bus following you? “In Tanzania if a person gets a car they never ride a bike again.”

Global Adventure Guide is running four Tanzania mountain biking tours in June, July, August and September.