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Two wheels good

Swapping the honking of intolerant city drivers for the braying of buffalo on the plains of Africa, Paul Chai takes a two-wheel safari in northern Tanzania.

There are a lot of firsts on this Intrepid cycling tour of northern Tanzania. We are the first group allowed to cycle through Arusha National Park, it is the first time I have viewed African wildlife without the protection of a four-wheel drive – and now I am following a Maasai on a mountain bike as he leads us to his village.

Isaac meets us by the dusty roadside where he hops onto one of the spare bikes and beckons us to follow him.

We fall in line behind our guide, his traditional red blanket billowing over his shoulder and play a game of follow the Maasai along the sandy path to the Losirwa village, named after the biggest gazelle in Africa.

We have come to the village as the men return from the plains with the cattle and both men and women perform a traditional dance to celebrate the homecoming.

The village has also provided a barbecue for us, goat legs are speared into the ground hoof first in a circle around a charcoal pit. The gamey meat is washed down with a soup of herbs with some added iron as our hosts cheerfully add some fresh cow’s blood to our mugs, a staple of the nomadic Maasai diet. Later, we help herd the cows into their pen for the night and join Isaac and the tribe for some campfire stories about Maasai life.

A connection to the land

“Fundamentally, there are only so many places a safari vehicle can go,” says Frank Cheshire, Intrepid Travel’s cycling product manager. “You’d be amazed at how much the world opens up when you trade in a truck for two-wheels. Cycling allows us to skip the main roads in favour of beautiful hidden laneways, picturesque dirt roads and serene villages and towns.”

On a bike you feel every bump, you taste the dust and you work for those hills. You are quieter, less obtrusive and often an oddity to the local kids who run to the side of the road to see what this strange pack of lycra-clad animals are up to.

We are starting our bike trek in the carpark of Arusha National Park where our bikes are unloaded from the Intrepid Travel cycling support van and we cause a bit of a fuss with national park staff – we are the first group with permission to tackle the national park on bikes – who are snapping photos as we do a test run around the entrance.

After a quick safety check, we set off into the park and within minutes we have reached an open plain teeming with wildlife. Zebras watch us suspiciously, wildebeest barely regard us at all, while a pair of warthogs trots officiously across the grassland as if late for some important date.

This is a plein-air safari with nothing between you and the wildlife and it’s exhilarating seeing African wildlife outside the confines of a safari truck. We enquire about our safety – none of us have been on safari with only a water bottle and two wheels to protect us – but our guide Justaz Molel, assures us that there are no lions in this national park. The most dangerous animals here are leopards and buffalo, but I’ll take them over Australian drivers any day.

The roads are rough-hewn red dirt with some surprising obstacles– a troupe of baboons leaps from the bush right in front of us and then pauses, perhaps startled by all the Lycra.

Soon we are climbing hills, big ones that have me puffing and panting like a gazelle that has just avoided being a lion’s lunch. The savannah switches to heavily wooded forest and after a few more hills I catch up to a group who has stopped for a rest. We make so much noise that three of the tree trunks start to move, it turns out they were giraffe grazing nearby in the forest and they now lope away from us into the safety of the trees. More hills see the group split into two: those who are good at hills and those who are not. I am firmly in the latter camp but what keeps me going is the simple description of gravity often attributed to Isaac Newton: “What goes up must come down.”

As dusk starts to settle across the park we reach a well-earned downhill that sees us bump over the tightly packed earth for kilometres, then it flattens out into a stretch of road bathed in sunset. Kids break from a football game to run to the roadside and wave us on and Maasai farmers and their cattle provide the odd roadblock as they cross in front of us. As the sun disappears our support vehicle materialises and we all climb in tired but elated.

Back at our accommodation for the night – Mkuru Safari Camp a simple, tented affair with bush showers – the longnecks of Kiliminjaro beer (motto: “If you can’t climb it, drink it”) go down well, then Justaz casually mentions that he was previously a guide on Africa’s highest mountain and has climbed “Kili” 273 times.

Herd mentality

Today’s ride is pretty straightforward, the main obstacle being the thorny spikes of the acacia trees scattered on the ground, one of which pierces straight through the sole of my shoe and would happily do the same to our tyres. The landscape is more arid now, and for the most part we are the only travellers on this curvy section dirt road to Mto wa Mba. I look down and realise I am making bike tracks over the goat tracks left by the Maasai.

Our new base is Twiga Lodge and Campsite in Mto wa Mbu, near Lake Manyara. One side of this huge lake, on the edge of the Rift Valley, is national park but we are cycling along the other side through common land. We get a rock-star welcome in the village and Justaz explains that we have been on Tanzanian TV because of our inaugural ride through Arusha National Park – and the national park’s Facebook page is posting sightings of us as we wheel our way around the country.

Today’s ride starts in a glade where monkeys hang from every tree before emerging onto a grassy plain beside Lake Manyara, flamingos are standing along the lake rim along with Thompson’s gazelles, and a conga line of wildebeest.

If nothing else, our bikes are a good talking point and some fisherman by the lake offer us freshly caught tilapia to feed the Maribou storks – the undertakers of the bird world – that are lingering around in hope of some lunch. We toss them a few small fish and then cycle home across the plain.

In the afternoon we take a four-wheeled safari around the adjacent Lake Manyara National Park and finally spot some elusive lions, as well as hippos and a family of elephants.

That night we stay at Panorama Safari Camp that sits high on the Rift Valley escarpment in African “igloos” and watch the sun set over Lake Manyara from our clifftop perch.

The crater good

The Ngorongoro Crater is a huge volcanic caldera, that cradles a host of African wildlife in a sheltered basin surrounded by mountains on all sides. So protected are these animals that the crater is often referred to as a “zoo”, but the animals are not protected from the realities of life in the African savannah.

We climb down into the crater floor through misty cloud where we can see the silhouettes of a trio of giraffes. These long-necked animals are only seen on the escarpment leading into the crater because the crater itself does not have enough trees for them. When we reach ground level we spy just some of the 250,000 animals that live here; we see a battered hyena recovering from a vicious fight, more gazelle, wildebeests, zebras, flamingo and buffalo. I spot my first-ever jackal and one of the four prides of lions that inhabits the area.

Then we see something that even impresses our seasoned safari guide. A rhinoceros is sitting in the grass and through our binoculars we see a hyena that appears to making its way towards the rhino, one of the most aggressive beasts on the plain. Not only does the brave (or crazy) hyena head for the rhino it starts nipping at its flank, a David-and-Goliath battle right before our eyes. When the rhino turns it has a large wound on its side, and this crazy hyena clearly fancies its chances but the rhino finally rouses itself and shakes the wild dog off like it is swatting a pesky fly. We lunch around a waterhole that is full of skulking hippos, but we stay inside our car because local kites are known to swoop down and steal sandwiches here.

We have one more bike trip ahead of us. Riding back to our accommodation, we take off as a single, Lycra-clad pack for the last time.

Back in Karatu we head into town for a sunset drink to celebrate our tour. “So much of Eastern Africa has traditionally been enjoyed through the comfort of a safari window,” says Frank Cheshire. “What we wanted to offer travellers with the cycling tours was an opportunity to break down those barriers and truly experiences the culture, scenery and landscapes of Tanzania.”

Sitting at our roadside plastic table in Karatu, Kiliminjaro in hand, I’d say we did just that.

Images courtesy of Intrepid Travel

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