Out of Africa Trip Report

     
SOMETHING SPECIAL

THE BIKING

THE OPERATOR

THE LUXURIES

PRIVATE TRIP

RIDE PHOTOGALLERY

 

Something Special

I was off off to Tanzania for K E Adventures first commercial mountain bike trip in the area. There was going to be ten days biking and two days touring. I was not sure what to expect from Africa. And Tanzania as a country, was a complete unknown to me. I had done walking and ski trips with adventure operators but not mountain biking, so this was another unknown. For sure it would be different to any mountain bike touring I had done previously on five continents. I expected that the wild life would be the highlight. Certainly seeing giraffe, zebra, ostrich, gazelle, monkey, pelicans, stalks and huge flocks of pink flamingoes close up in a totally natural environment from our bikes in a way not seen by tourists doing the standard jeep safari was something special. My fascination with the flora and fauna is from the prospective of an Australian who is accustomed to wide spectrum of diversity from Europe to Australia to Asia. Someone who's experience is purely European or North American will possibly be even more fascinated by the difference in flora and fauna.

However for me the real highlight as a result of touring northern Tanzania by mountain bike was the cultural experience of getting up close to the Masai people. We biked through areas where very few tourists go. We made close contact with these friendly and inquisitive people eking out a subsistence style existence, with a culture similar to that they have followed for thousands of years. Throughout the world, in India, in remote villages in Fiji and rural villages in Malaysia, I am continually amazed how well presented some of the poorest people are. They do not have washing machines, hot water services or even running water to their houses but they are so neat, clean and well presented despite their basic, dusty living facilities. They put to shame so many people in western society who present so poorly. The Masai people are particularly fascinating with their colourful attractive dress. In the past their economic environment must have been much more affluent for them to develop such a culture. The mental image of these colourful people in both a picture and cultural sense is the strongest memory of the mountain biking in Tanzania, even stronger than the wild life, stronger than the fascinating and different landscape that we biked through, stronger than the unique vegetation be biked through and stronger than the spectacular image of Mt Kilimanjaro. It is not that each of these other memories are not absolutely fantastic in itself, each one of themselves would have made the trip all the way to Africa to mountain bike worthwhile. The combination of great mountain biking plus all these sights and experiences made for a fantastic trip.

While the major towns like Dar Es Salaam and Arusha may seem like third world in Asia or the Pacific or anywhere, once you were out into the country side it was completely different. The harshness and dryness may seem like outback Australia but the vegetation, wildlife, the people and the culture were completely different.

 The Biking

You head off on a mountain bike trip with people you do not know and you worry on the one hand will it be real mountain biking, or maybe just a dirt road tour? On the other hand you worry will it be too tough and you can't keep up. K E Adventure graded this trip as demanding. I would rate their description as very accurate, and especially on the first couple of days where I would describe the grade at the high end of demanding towards the highest category of strenuous. There were a number of days which presented a considerable challenge to the fit and experienced mountain biker. There were some long days with energy sapping terrain under a very hot sun. Even if there was enough daylight at the end of the day to service the bikes, it was hard to summon the energy to do so. While the challenge may have been exhausting on some days, on most days it was rewarding and enjoyable. Fighting our way through the soft sand which wanted to swallow up all your energy during the first few days certainly lost it's appeal towards dark on a long day. K E Adventure had been searching for an alternative route that could be used for the first two days of the trip, and I understand that they were going to evaluate some of the suggestions from our group.

The ride was not overly technical but throughout the ride there was enough technical challenge to keep most cross country mountain bikers happy. Of the ten days biking, the route included seven days which involved single track or technical sections. On two days there were relatively steep rough sections and steep drop-offs, with large loose rocks which required skill and nerve to ride completely.

A couple of riders lacking in fitness or ride experience really struggled with some of the ride, and had to push themselves to the limit. I do not think that this is the ideal preparation from their point of view to enjoy the trip. They had to walk sections other than the unrideable sand sections. On a twelve day cycling holiday I think that you will get most enjoyment, if it represents some challenge, but the grade is well within your limits at the time. 

The Operator

My evaluation of KE Adventure is on the basis of this one experience. From my experience if you are doing a trip with KE be prepared for genuine raw adventure standard, discomfort, inconvenience, delays, upsets etc. Certainly do not expect to be nursemaided, mollycoddled or have an armchair ride. I am not saying that KE do not attempt to make the trip pleasant and enjoyable. It is simply that they do not go to great lengths to sanitise the trip.

It is tough, hot and unpredictable out in Tanzania and that is what you get. If you went out to Tanzania with some experienced mates then you know that you will be expected to pull your weight. You would anticipate hard days when things do not go right. The weather, terrain and navigation will mean that a particular day may not turn out as good as expected, or maybe it turned out a lot better. Expect no different on a KE trip. Sure with considerable expense they could hone down the trip so it does run pretty predictably. But then you have a tourist trip not an adventure trip.

Do not get me wrong Matt Reedy the leader and Eddy the Kenyan assistant worked dam hard to ensure we all the most enjoyable time. Where problems did arise they minimised the impact on the group and ensured that problems did not turn into a crises. Sure they did not have the route down perfectly. However when people were getting tired or finding it tough, Matt had altered the route before it had got to be a serious problem.  When we were running behind he had changed the plan and moved the campsites so we did not run out of daylight, and we did not know until it had happened.

On the afternoon of the first day, extensive unrideable sandy patches, navigation and puncture after puncture put us well behind schedule. Matt cut the ride short and found an alternative campsite before dark. On the second day Matt changed the route to move us more out of this very dry area  which the wildlife had departed from.  Sensibly he did not try to catch up the distance on the second day as some members of the group were still very tired from the first day and the track was simply too rough to make up time. So again the camp site was altered. He left the catch-up to the third day where the tracks were much faster and there were some on road sections so we could ride one and a half times the planned distance and still get into the third night's camp at Merserani Snake Farm by mid afternoon.

Since there were only six of us, KE gave us a tent each, which was not expected. This was something that they need not have done, as we were to share tents and was a nice gesture. I believe that it is indicative of an attitude to the trip members which is as much a club attitude as a commercial venture.

The pre ride information we received was excellent and not only was a great help in preparing for the trip, but also in adding to the enjoyment of the rip. Good pre trip medical information is especially essential for a trip to Africa.

The Luxuries

Going with a commercial adventure operator gives you some luxuries that you will not get doing it yourself. After we arrived in camp there was soon a drink of tea or coffee and a snack while we relaxed or more often serviced the bikes and repaired umpteen punctures. We did not have to worry about finding and purifying water, that was all done for us. Of course the meals were all cooked and served. I thought that we may have to help with food preparation and washing dishes etc. Not so, we had a full crew of three and this was done for us. Lucky too, because a few days we got in quite late and very tired, it would have been a while before we worked up the energy to start preparing the meal.

I was expecting that our only chance to wash would be the three nights we camped at commercial camp grounds and where we came across a river. In fact we had a sort of warm shower every night. It worked out to be a ration of one and a half litres of warm water. You had to get your self damp, stop the water, soap up and try to wash the soap and dirt off. It looked like most of the dirt ended up on my towel. However with suntan cream and then very dry dusty conditions we ended up pretty dirty at the end of each day. It was a grateful bonus to get the dust off before getting changed into our mosquito protecting  long pants and shirt for dinner, and not having to climb into our sleeping bag like we got off the bike. I am sure that if you were leading your own ride in Africa with a group of friends you would not get yourself organised for a warm shower each night.

Of course the biggest luxury of all was not having to bury yourself in maps and correspondence for months beforehand to organise the ride. And when we were there we could concentrate all our energies on riding. We did not have to worry about the navigation, negotiation with the locals, locating camp sites and finding water. We had the luxury of a leader and his support team to iron out the problems.

Private Trip

Do you need to mountain bike in the Northern Parks area of Tanzania with an overseas commercial operator or could you do your own private trip? I think that it would be pointless to try and do a multi day tour in the area without a degree of local support. The area is too remote to effectively tour without a support vehicle and you definitely need someone who knows the area and can speak the language. You may be able to alter the itinerary to stay in near-by towns and villages. The trip would take more time and the towns and villages in the area are so basic that it would not be more any comfortable than rough camping. As the section of the website on service in Tanzania illustrates it is almost impossible to organise things in advance from outside the country. You would need to allow from three days to three weeks after you arrived in Arusha to make the contacts, check out the people, do the planning, schedule and get started. Most mountain bikers would probably think that their time was more valuable, than the cost to be saved by running a private trip when KE Adventure has a trip already organised.

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Revised: April 01, 2006