• Alana Conner

Tanzania Bike Tour, Kili Climb, & Safari, 2009

Updated: Aug 13


Three people pose in front of a bike with panniers in Moshi, Tanzania
We three: David, Alana, & Jerome

Here are short essays from my February 2009 bicycle tour of Tanzania's Usambara & Pare Mountains, ascent of Kilimanjaro, & safaris. Mad gratitude to David Mozer, director of the International Bicycle Fund, which organizes fantastic culturally immersive bike tours; David Finger, my accidental fellow-traveler; Jerome Mwambonekeh, our wise bicycle guide; Rumisha and Nicas, our fearless Kili guides; and Ephraim, our eagle-eyed safari guide. For more photos, see these albums of the bike tour, Kili climb, & Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, & Tarangire safaris.

 

Table of Contents

How I Funded This Trip

Bongo Kangas

Modest Muslim Cycling Wear

All Ears

Mountain Biking is not Road Cycling

Shortcuts

Small Joys

My Valentine's Date with Kili

 

How I Funded This Trip

A diamond ring in a ring box sits on a bank counter with a fan of many 100 dollar bills behind it.
Bens for my bling

Menlo Park, CA, U.S.—Two years after a very sad divorce, I sold my engagement ring, bought a used Gary Fisher hard-tail mountain bike, and set out for a bicycle tour of northeast Tanzania, followed by a shimmy up Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak, and a wildlife safari.


Diamonds weren’t forever. The platinum also passed. And so I wanted to invest in something more enduring: experience.


Selling my besmirched merch took more than a year, as the market for used engagement rings is about as hopping as turtles in a tar pit. But eventually Craigslist revealed a buyer—a lawyer of the reduce/reuse/recycle set.


We met at a bank. He paid in cash. I hadn’t predicted the awesomeness of seeing so many Ben Franklins at once, and so all I had on hand to document the moment was my craptastic cell phone. Hence this classy snap.


I also hadn’t prepared myself for the small gasp of sadness in my heart when I parted with the last vestige of my married life. The feeling passed, however, when my beaming buyer turned to me and said, “Can I hug you?” I had not anticipated the tonic of his joy.


That night he proposed to his girlfriend, who promptly accepted.


The next day, flush with cash, I put down my deposit for the International Bicycle Fund’s “Tanzania Surf to Summit” tour, prowled for used bikes on Craigslist, and started all over, all over again.

 

Bongo Kangas

A saleswoman smiles as she wraps me in a kanga that features the face of Barack Obama on my backside.
A well-placed Obama can be very slimming.

Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania—For many East Africans, a printed cotton wrap called the kanga is the go-to everyday article of clothing. The best part of the kanga is the least accessible to me: the Kiswahili proverb splashed across the middle.


In an exhibit at the local museum, I came across a kanga that sported this gem: “Mother, give me your blessings; living with people is really tough” (Mama nipe radhi kuishi na wata).


Here, a saleswoman helps me model the Obama kanga that is all the rage. Its proverb reads: “Congratulations, Barack Obama. Love and peace, may God empower you.”


But not all of the kanga proverbs are so bongo (Kiswahili for “clever”). I couldn’t resist one that the saleswoman translated simply as, “Oh, wow!” I look forward to wearing it to spice up those lackluster Mondays back at the office.

 

Modest Muslim Cycling Wear

I am standing with my bike on the precipice
My kit and mighty steed

Irente, Tanzania. Although Tanzania seems like a pretty tolerant place, I would feel awkward if I were shrink-wrapped in spandex when most women here are sporting ankle-length kangas, saris, or even burqas. And so I’ve settled into my modest Muslim cycling kit: loose mountain-biking pants coupled with long-sleeve cotton shirts that I picked up at FabIndia in New Delhi when I visited Dr. Lucy a few years ago. (N.B. Zanzibar is overwhelmingly Muslim, but the rest of Tanzania is predominantly Christian.)


I hope that my demure dress makes me a bit more approachable, advertising that I am not (for once) some half-nekkid wench come to upset the social order. But the question remains: Am I an inspiration to the ladies to take up their bikes and lay claim to the highways, or a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t marry well?


Jerome and David reckoned that the answer is the latter, and suggested that we complete my kit by hanging a sign around my neck that says, “Woman for sale.” I recommended that they add “Long legs! Strong teeth! Good SAT scores!”

Tanzanian women carry heavy loads on their heads while walking down a dirt road.
No way I can do

Meanwhile, the people I roll past do seem to admire my exertions. “No way I can do,” said a woman carrying about 50 pounds of firewood on her head. “You must be very strong,” several men have speculated.


But the surest sign of respect is the term of address I get when I’m on my bike. On foot, I am called “dada”: that is, sister. But when I’m on two wheels, I become “mama.”


 


All Ears

Three young Tanzanian sisters stand at the top of a mountain
No ears were chopped off on this trip

Mtae, Tanzania—The sisters in this picture followed me all the way up a steep 30-minute climb. Although I enjoyed the accompaniment of their footfalls and giggles, I found it difficult to feel like a bad-ass cyclist when three schoolgirls—all barefoot, none breathless—could so easily keep up with me.


When we reached the summit, though, only the eldest remained. She spoke her first English words to me: “Give me money.”


As I would later learn, this is a familiar refrain among Tanzanian children. Someone, somewhere has taught them the following: 1) All wazungu (white people) are crazy rich, and 2) If you say, “Give me money,” they will share their wealth with you.


I’ve asked several Tanzanian adults about this phenomenon, and they shake their heads and say that the children have bad manners. They also warn me against giving money, even if the children are desperately poor.


But I wanted to give this kid a treat because here she was, all brave and strong and fast, alone on a mountaintop with some strange white chick. From my pannier I fished out a small gift I had brought just for this occasion—a millefiori necklace that my ex-mother-in-law, a glass artist, made. I have about 20 of these left over from my marriage, and was looking forward to unloading them on the unsuspecting populace. (Agribusinesses, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical multinationals perfected this strategy long before me.)


The girl looked at the necklace, then looked at me, then repeated, “Give me money.”

A green valley with mountain behind it
My reward for climbing: A gorgeous view

By this time, Jerome, David, and I had regrouped and the other sisters had caught up. The sun was beginning to set, and we had a breathtaking view of the valleys tumbling below us.


“What are we doing here?” asked one of the girls in Kiswahili. (Jerome translated.) “These wazungu aren’t going to give us any money. In fact, they’re probably going to cut off our ears.”


Jerome chuckled and reassured the girls that we weren’t the ear-cutting-off kind of wazungu. I told him about the money-not-gift communiques I was getting from the eldest girl.


He then quietly asked her about the necklace. She didn’t say anything.


Jerome explained that she really liked the present.


“How can you tell?” I asked.


“Because she won’t show it to me and she’s hiding it from her sisters.”

 

Mountain Biking Is Not Road Cycling

A steep single-track dirt path with a bicycle in the foreground
It was all downhill from here

Ndungu, Tanzania—When I signed up for this adventure, I had many miles of bike commuting and road cycling in my rearview mirror, but zero mountain biking experience. Nevertheless, I signed up for a mountain biking tour of northeastern Tanzania, thinking, "How different can it be?"


A lot different, I quickly learned on day 3 of our ride. The 40-mile journey started with a plunge down the side of a mountain in a rock-strewn, corrugated trench, with thorny brambles to my left and a plummet to my death on the right. It ended with miles of steep ravines that required me to bomb the downhill as fast as possible so that I would have enough momentum to climb the uphill. In between, boulders bounced my bike hither and thither, sand sent my back wheel shimmying, and tight switchbacks added torque to my growing terror. Meanwhile, gravity pulled the disaster ever faster. In many sections I just wanted to get off and walk, but the path was so pitched that descending on foot with my heavily laden bike was dangerous, if not impossible.

I am sitting at a table with a glowing bottle of soda
My queendom for an Orange Fanta

By the time we arrived at our guesthouse, all I could do was retreat to my room for a good cry and an Orange Fanta. (Tasting just like St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, Orange Fanta is the perfect accompaniment for any trauma that regresses you to childhood.) I couldn't blame IBF; they had warned there would be technical sections of the route. Instead, I had only myself to blame for endangering myself and possibly my trip buddies. One day, I told myself, this will have seemed like fun. But not today.


 

Shortcuts

Ndungu, Tanzania—One of the benefits of taking the local shortcuts is that they often harbor unfathomable adventure. And one of the costs of taking the local shortcuts is that they often harbor unfathomable adventure.

Busted flat near Ndungu

Consider our first shortcut: Some local men digging an ominously large hole in the road recommended that we ride through a nearby grove to carve a few clicks off our route. Three hours and 15 tire punctures later—all of which we had to patch, as we each brought only two inner tubes—we decided that bushwhacking through a thorn forest wasn’t such a swell idea, after all.


Upon completing our sojourn in the thorn forest, we decided to make up for lost time by boating across the lake in our path, rather than biking around it. The boatmen on the shore were happy to ferry us in their dugout canoes for the low-low price of $10 per person. What they didn’t mention, or maybe didn’t consider, was that their heavily patched, readily rolling tree-trunk dugouts might not be able to float a hulking mzungu with bicycle and panniers.


Tanzanian boatman gather around a dugout at a lake's edge.
How about a three-hour tour?

Nevertheless, they loaded up the first canoe with my gear and me. (Ladies first!) It took all my core muscles to counterbalance the load and perch on the stern. Even though I didn't fall into the drink, within moments, the canoe was half full of water. (See? I AM an optimist.) The captain began angrily shouting at me, but, not speaking Kiswahili, I had no idea what he was saying.



Five Maasai laughing in a small group.
Wazungu trying to ride in dugouts is hilarious!


Meanwhile, back on shore, the 50 Maasai gathered for the free entertainment started laughing. My back was to them, and so I inferred that I was the source of the hilarity. I later learned that both David and Jerome had already capsized behind me, with one dugout sinking into into the muck on the bottom of the lake. Disgusted, my captain paddled back to shore, where I fished my gear out of the swampy canoe and waded back to dry land.


In the end, we cycled around the lake. Needless to say, we didn’t take any more shortcuts that day.

 

Small Joys

A young boy carries a big rabbit by its ears and hind legs.
Whatcha got there?

Lushoto, Tanzania—I snapped this pic of a small boy carrying a large rabbit as I wandered about Lushoto, a leafy market town nestled in the Usambara Mountains. We’d arrived earlier that day, and so I spent the late afternoon moseying around by myself. The main road was full of children walking home—from school, if they were affluent enough to attend, from elsewhere, if not.


One copse of willowy schoolgirls in their uniforms—which included a sweater, even though the temperature was well above 90 degrees F—tried out their English on me. I returned their kindness by playing photoshoot for a half hour. A digital camera with instant replay capability is a fantastic toy, especially for kids who seldom see pictures of themselves.




A group of schoolgirls in uniform pose for the camera.
Supermodels

The girls tried out all manner of complicated configurations and cryptic gestures. As we sat reviewing our handiwork on my camera’s display, one of the girls sweetly adjusted my sunglasses on top of my head. As her fingers lingered, I figured out what she was after. And so I took down my ponytail and let all the girls touch my hair. (When I studied in Japan, several people walked right up and asked to touch my exotic dishwater locks.) Oohs and ahhs ensued. I think my manky helmet-hanks were thrilling partly because the girls had sacrificed their own hair for the privilege of attending school.

Two girls with arms around each other walk down a dusty street in Lushoto, Tanzania.
Friends

After we parted ways, I wandered back to our hotel. For part of the way, I walked behind two girls traveling with their arms around each other. Their sweet and kind behavior, like that of the other Lushoto children, touched me deeply. Sometimes, and maybe even often, the world is an okay place.







 

My Valentine's Date with Kili

After our bike tour ended in Moshi, David and I teamed up with guides Rumisha and Nicas for a five-day climb up Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak, via the Marangu Route. We summited on February 14, Valentine's Day, beneath a spectacular meteor shower.


Four people pose in front of the sign at the peak of Kilimanjaro.
Rumisha, David, Alana, and Nicas bag Kili.

Moshi, Tanzania—As has sometimes been the case on Valentine's Day, today's exertions left me breathless. The air at 19,340 feet is quite thin, after all. But I was uncharacteristically frigid, despite my oh-so-sexy rig of silk long underwear, running tights, hiking pants, rain pants, three nylon shirts, fleece anorak, down jacket, Gore Tex shell, and decidedly unflattering rented balaclava.


To watch the sun rise from the roof of Africa, about 50 climbers and our guides set out for the summit around midnight, having climbed for three days to reach the Kibo Hut. The moon was so bright that we didn’t need our headlamps. The Big Dipper hung close to the horizon. Frequent shooting stars whipped their sparkling red tail across the ink of the night. 



The barren plain between Mawenzi and Kibo peaks.
The barren plain between Mawenzi and Kibo peaks.

Despite the breathtaking beauty, I wasn’t in it to win it. My hands had lost all feeling. My runny nose had cut a frozen stream across my face. My legs had grown cranky from the previous three days of constant ascent. I kept thinking about a friend-of-a-friend who died of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) on Kili.


“Why am I here?” I thought. I recalled the mutterings of the schoolgirls who had followed me up a mountain on my bike just ten days earlier: “These wazungu aren’t going to give me any money. In fact, they’re probably going to cut off my ears!”


I paused with Rumisha. “Sawa, sawa?” (“You okay?”) he asked. I explained that my hands were frozen. He ripped my gloves off and wrapped my useless paws around a hot water bottle in his coat. He then gave me his mittens and took my flimsy gloves for himself. I was still thinking about phoning in my resignation when Rumisha grabbed my hand, and with a “Twende!” (“Let’s go!”) pulled me back on the trail. 


When we reached the summit some two hours later, David and Nicas were already waiting. “Don’t cry,” Nicas said when I spied the peak marker. But he was too late—a sob had already forced itself out of my chest. 


“How did you know that I was going to cry?” I later asked.


Nicas replied, “Tourists always cry when the reach the summit.”


I still don’t know what kinds of tears they were, though—of relief? joy? pain? Probably some combination.

Furtwangler Glacier, slowly waking up.
Furtwangler Glacier, slowly waking up.

The Furtwangler Glacier glowed low blue like an old PC screen, with the rising sun adding orange every second. Freezing and exhausted, we snapped a few quick photos and then made a hasty retreat to more oxygenated altitudes.


The schlep back down to Kibo (3 miles) and then to Horombo (another 6.5 miles) was slick and quick.





A week later in Arusha, I bought a used copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a gripping account of altitude-addled decisions and death on Mt. Everest. Reading the book on the plane home, I realized I had snagged one of the seven summits—the highest peaks on each of the Earth’s continents. Although I do not aspire to climb many more of these overgrown hills, I must say that I’m a little proud of myself for hauling my Delta-born, flatland-lubbin’ backside up to one of the highest places on the planet. 

 

The Safari Sleeper Effect

"Waahahahaha!!"—Statler & Waldorf of the Serengeti

Menlo Park, California, U.S.—Most travel is better in the doing than in the sharing. But while sorting through the photographic evidence of my February, I made a curious find: When it comes to safaris, the slide show equals the schlep. Indeed, the interplays of predator and prey, the landscapes soaked in beauty, the holy-cannoli-is-that-a-hippo-flipping? moments that I witnessed two months ago are even more astounding to me now than when I witnessed them firsthand.

A hippo on its back in a pond in Ngorongoro Crater.
Hippos flip in the water to keep their skin moist. They also smell remarkably bad.

I must admit: When I embarked upon my six-day safari to Tarangire, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater national parks—the durations and locales that all the guidebooks recommended—my baseline for amazement was abnormally elevated. I had just spent three weeks crashing along on my bike and hoofing up mountains, inhaling every pixel of this hyper-saturated world. Somehow breathing dust in a Land Cruiser for six days just wasn’t buttering my biscuits.



I also objected to the many forces that keep Black people out of the national parks. After so many days of being one half of the white population on every town I visited, I was dismayed to realize that the majority of safari-goers in Tanzania—rounding the safari circuit in their identical khaki kits, replete with Tulley hat—could reasonably depart with the impression that Tanzania is a majority-white country.

Two cheetahs hunt from atop a termite mound in the Serengeti.
Let's get dinner!

But when I got home and snapped open my camera, I was properly wowed. “Yeah, watching those two cheetahs hunt from the termite mound was incredibly rad,” I thought.


Seeing whole families of elephants capering beneath the acacias was also straight-up magical.


And giraffes nibbling clouds is not something you get to see everyday.

A family of five elephants stands in front of acacias.
Elephants' preferred Olan Mills background: Acacias.

A giraffe appears to be eating clouds.
Nom nom nom.

Three zebras stand with their haunches nearly touching so that they can protect each other from predators.
I got your back.

The Zebras were especially beguiling, with their habit if clustering in threes so that they can protect each other from predators.


I could go on and on, but it's probably best to just check out my full photo galleries on Flickr.






Sunlight streams through clouds over the Serengeti plain
Godlight over the Serengeti