When we think about Tanzania, the first thing that comes to mind are the wild animal poetic pictures walking through the immense Serengeti savannah during the annual migrations, the snowy top of the ever omnipresent Kilimanjaro and the idyllic Zanzíbar beaches, sightseeing touristy places that are located in the east part of this country. But nevertheless, we rarely hear stories from the Tanzanian west, where unpopulated places extend hundreds of kilometers, the only ones inhabitants of the bush and the virgin coast of Tanganyika lake, are the wild animals and people from the tribes away from every contact with the masses of tourists. It doesn't matter how beautiful the photos of the east are, some of them photographed ad nausea, it is this stretch of 1000 km of inhospitable wilderness that extends from the Burundi border to the Malawi border, that captivates me the most and that's where we head to.
Upon entering this remote region of Tanzania the biggest relief is to feel the sensation of open space. Tanzania is not only 25 times the size of Rwanda and Burundi and an infinitely less dense population, but the people here don't suffocate us, quite the opposite, they are very relaxed, respectful and nice. However, the biggest (and marvelous) contrast is that the eternal echo that accompanied us through the last three countries wherever we were"mzungu, give me money"repeated over and over again every time we passed with the bike, was finally over.
Two days of rest at the Kasane church, where my Iron Maiden had to recover from a virulent bacterial infection that left her face with just one eye, as though she had just come from a fight with Mike Tyson, and we finally started the inhospitable adventure of crossing the Tanzanian west. A road that from the very beginning offers adventures, and that is what this is all about because adventures are what we live for. As soon as we left Uvinza village, we found a big river where a huge group of hippos was soaking. My first reaction wasn't one of surprise, but to think twice before taking a bath in the rivers of this part of Africa (a thing that I have already done several times). For those of us who grew up in a cosmopolitan city, to meet a hippo isn't an everyday thing , it is something magical, to stay hours watching with the fascination of a kid, and this way, like two kids, we approached the shore to stay just a few meters from them, enjoying in person the sort of images that one just can see on tv documentaries. You have to be there my Friends, to watch them, enjoy them, hear them roar and feel how your body vibrate with such a meeting.
After crossing the river, a dusty road painted red runs right through a thick green bush under a burning sun. Gerard, the only cyclist of the few I met who passed by here, without avoiding this long route taking the ferry across Tanganyka lake, advised me about long distances without access to water or food, and he also told me that progress was really slow. It didn't take long to confirm the precision of his words. Hours and days pass by and we continued moving along completely alone across a road in wich objectively speaking, there's nothing to see an no one to talk to. But there hasn't got to be something to see necessarily , because the experience of the adventure stimulate the senses and moves you forward.
Once again, the most invaluable flavor of being in the middle of nowhere takes over me, together with Julia, making this team of two intrepid travelers nothing can stop. But it is important to debunk the image of an adventure too, it is not all about fighting against the adversity on the difficult roads; together with the adversity one can also have fun, because in these endless roads hours are long and you need to find ways to break everyday's monotony, killing time mitigating the roughness. Because of this, and because there's absolutely no one here, it occurred to me to see how long I could pedal as I never had before, naked. Call it Murphy's law, that one of the two vehicles that we saw in a whole day, passed by at the right moment when I was ciclying naked across the bush!
I decided to go back to my clothes quickly, but not as much because of declaring my defeat as for not wanting to let the burning sun leave me completely pink like a shrimp, while I stubbornly kept trying to succeed with it. It would be a failure anyway, because after a while we were going to find out that we weren't really alone. The Sukuma, an ancestral tribe that inhabits the solitary Tanzanian northwest, appeared in our way, and I wouldn't like them to think that in the tribe that I come from we are used to cycle naked (although, to be honest, it is better to let them think that we do this harmless kind of things than the horrible evil things that we do instead). To set my best example, I leave the bicycle on the road and I start walking with them while they herd their cattle across the bush. I smile while we move till the leader stops and offers me an intense look, those ones you never forget.
After a while, when they return to their way, I go back to pick up my bicycle, but when we caught up with them we get stuck in the traffic generated by their oxen. Sukumas, like almost all the tribes that still survive in Africa, are shepherds who live off the animal husbandry. With them, their most valuable possession, they travel trough tens of kilometers everyday to take them through the pastures to reach the wells.
For many days we cycle across the red road of the bush, finding every more Sukuma shepherds every once in a while. It wouldn't be such a difficult road if it weren't because there is absolutely nothing on it, and being the end of the dry season it becomes worse because of the lack of water, which we have to carry in bottles, with all the extra weight that it implies. But these are quiet days, and even though they are very long, we enjoy them despite all the dust accumulated on us; and if there's something that was clear from the beginning is that even if there were a river, it wouldn't be wise to take a bath in it. The beautiful thing about the bush is that it doesn't matter how warm it is during the day, when the sun sets, when the last rays filter through the trees, plants make their magic and release a freshness that allows one to sleep pleasurably.
Tse Tse hell is coming
Finally, after a few days of empty bush and little fauna we arrived at Sitalike, the expected turning point between adventure and adrenaline, at the doors of Katavi National Park, the third largest in Tanzania after Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, with one of the highest densities of wild animals and the fewest tourists, if any at all. The teacher of the town invited us to camp at his courtyard and to have dinner with his family. There, he explained to us how to avoid the rangers' check point to be able to ride across the park, because if we come across them on the way, they wouldn't allow us to do it. He also advised us about lions, elephants and all the beasts that inhabit there, but he also motivated us to not to worry if we were going to be able to ride across all of the 71 km of the park while animals aren't at their chasing-prey time of the day. What he forgot to mention is the presence of one of the worst vermin that lives there, the diabolic tsetse fly.
At 7 am we departed from Sitalike following the way indicated by the teacher and we successfully entered the park without running into the guards. It's a road made of pieces of rocks, rubbles and a lor of dust that doesn't allows you to go fast; now, there's nothing or no one else other than all the beasts that we know that live there and with whom we can come across by surprise at any time. But to our surprise, what appears after 10 km inside the park is something that I suspect is much worse than a pack of hungry lions; swarms of thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of tse tse flies. This filthy little mosnters turned our journey into one of the most miserable experience of our lives. Tse tse flies are huge gray flies that grab on to your skin and bite you like Drácula. It seems to have very little to with what we know as flies. Unlike the coward every day fly who flies away as soon as you move your hand, you have to rake these monsters off your skin with your nails to detach them or to pop them hard many consecutive times till they explode, otherwise they won't leave. Their bite hurts and there's not one of them but hundreds on your body.
This is how we traveled the first 42 kilometers of the park where we didn't do anything else other than suffering thousands of these flies, literally, clasped to every single exposed part of our body or biting all our backs drilling through our T-shirts. At 35C we were fully dressed in winter clothes just to avoid being devoured. Even so, I could see my hands black covered with flies, getting inside my pants till finding the ankles and feeling the bites through the clothes. Wearing a mosquito net on my head, at times I couldn't even see what was in front of me due to the fact that they were covering it. On the other hand, Julia wrapped her hair all around her face and neck making a mask. The constants bites forced us to alternate the handlebar control using one hand to handle it and the other one to kill flies on the hand that was supporting it. As if that were not enough, in the middle of this hell, it happens what rarely ever happens, I got a flat tire!!! I think I never patched a flat so fast as that day, record time, while Julia was slapping me once and again to kill the flies that were eating me alive while I was repairing it. That way we got into the heart of the park, desperate, at the edge of psychosis, when suddenly they disappeared magically, and right there, big animals appeared.
A reprimand to remember
Soon after arriving at the heart of the park, we are surrounded by bush, dry, rough, inhospitable and apparently empty. It is incredible to think that this whole space around us is full of those animals we use to watch on tv devouring each other. Having this present in our heads keep us alert of our surrounding area, not so much for fear, animals don't hunt during the day (we hope) but by the eagerness to see these beasts in first person. Everything is quiet, until when crossing a swamp we heard a loud roar that leads us to look inmediatly to the side. There, under a thick paste of mud, tens of hipos and cocodriles are suffering the last heat of the dry season and I suspect that they scream calling the rain, that should arrive at any time this month, returning their will to live. Once again, we stayed like children appreciating these beasts right in front of us.
The hard part came later, when we caught sight of a pick up truck coming in opposite direction at full speed until it stopped right in front of us. Two rangers armed with machine guns get off and stopped us. They were angry but very respectfully yet severly they called:
- What are you two doing here on bicycles? You can't be here, it is prohibited!
-mmmm we had no idea at all (we lie), we just followed the way to the south, there weren't signs (true) or anything so we kept moving forward- we answered playing our best innocent faces
- But you know that here, all around us, just a few meters away, this is full of lions, elephants and buffaloes?- pointing out with his walkie talkies antenna around him.
- Well yes, we supposed it, but during the day, they don't attack right? do they?- I answer
- That doesn't matter. When you have a lion in front of you, you don't decide if you live or not- he tells me glaring at me.
- But it is midday, they are sleeping now, they don't eat, do they?- I insist cordially perhaps trying to prove him that we weren't there out of stupidity but we were informed
- How many people have died eaten by lions or crushed by elephants here? - I asked
- mmm... well, no, nobody. - he replies uncomfortably
- Ahhhhh you see? It is not as dangerous!- and I laugh
- mmm well... mmm no emmm... - I stole a smile out of him and I could see he was a bit embarrassed, but then he recomposes himself and declares - It is dangerous! there are a lot of wild animals and you never know, they are unpredictable.
We spent 20 minutes waiting for his boss' orders to come by radio. In the meanwhile we talk about life, about our trip, about their experiencies with animals, we all became friends and in a moment of silence, one of them tells us: -have you ever seen a giraffe? - No- we answer- well, look behind you. And there it was, slender like a tower, a giraffe. Crossing slowly the road while little Julia and little Nico were peeing themselves out of happiness and the guards softened in front of our image.
The orders finally arrive, they ask us how long it will take us to complete the last 28 km till we can get out of the park and after we tell them it wouldn't be much, they authorise us to continue, but advise us to go as fast as we can, without stopping and get to the gate before 4 pm, the time when herds of elephants cross the road to get to the river, when meeting could be lethal. We nod and we obey with the same diligence of two children that have just been reprimanded by their teachers, and off we go on the way to the exit gate, but soon after we started to feel hungry and we stopped to eat in the middle of the way.
Foolish and disobedient children we are, we spent 40 minutes in the bush waiting to see more animals while we were having lunch. We didn't see any other animals, but soon after we started to pedal, we were treading on fresh lions' tracks. Now, we'd better get out of here, because we are going slower tha we thought and by sunset it is better not to meet the cats. Safe and sound, we completed the 71 km of the park by bicycle, before 5 pm, and finding civilization again made us feel relief and happiness. The price of a decent safari, nowadays can cost around 300 usd per person per day. We spent 0 (zero) usd per person, per day. Thereafter we returned to the monumental campings in the middle of the bush, where during the night they show my favorite show on tv: millions and millions of stars
The days are still hard after we left the park, with long sections without people and a significant headwind. To make it even more difficult, the villages are so poor, all they have to eat is ugali (a dough made of maize) and tasteless beans. Generally speaking, monotonous and repetitive food is not a problem for me when as long as it is abundant food, but here, I really suffered it. The only thing that compensated for the monotony of the food and the boring road, were the sunset and the beautiful nights. Reaching the end of the day in the bush with more Sukuma around, it is a marvelous experience, especially when some of them are strolling along with their cattle while playing the flute, filling the space with pure magic and sounds that I will never forget.
The problem of having these kind of experiences is that after them, everything gets boring, like almost the whole way after Sumbawamba. It's not just boring because there was nothing else to see and the road wasn't nice, but in the last 100 km of asphalt from the Zambian border till Mbeya we experienced real fear. Everyone in Africa asks us if we are not afraid of the wild animals while cycling. After these 100 km I answer that in Africa (Tanzania in this case), the real wild animals are the Tanzanians behind the steering wheel, and I would choose a savannah full of lions a thousand times over any sealed road of this country where what it is celebrated is murder on wheels. It's frightening, 100 km fearing to die, as simple as that, I arrived at Mbeya with my neck stiff out of sheer fear.
35 days have passed since we left Kampala, only taking 3 days to rest. We arrived at Mbeya after crossing the bush, the savannah, tea plantations, climbing more mountains than I could remember, incredible and wild lakes, living with tribes, facing the beasts and a lot more. At this moment, bliss was such that I felt that Julia and I were unbeatable. Josefina, one of her sisters, was waiting for us in Mbeya to join us for a while. If I had only been able to foresee the unexpected personal effect that this visit was going to have on me, I would have preferred to stay in the middle of Katavi for a week in order to never arrive at Mbeya.