Tough Roads in Tanzania
“Africa is surprisingly expensive," we'd heard time and time again from fellow travelers. But so far during our Africa trip, we had been able to find cheap food, accommodation, and camping. We even rented a 4x4 car in Namibia for a decent price and went on a “self-drive" safari in Etosha National Park for only $6 a person to enter. While some people were spending thousands of dollars on safaris in Africa, we'd spent a fraction of that, and I'd begun to think that everyone had been wrong.
And then we got to Tanzania.
The visa for Americans to enter this country is $100 a person. Alright, that a bit steep, but it's more-or-less the norm for Eastern African countries. But then there are the park fees. If you want to enter one of Tanzania's famous safari parks such as Serengeti National Park or Ngorongoro Crater, then you'll have to pay $80 a person for a 24 hour period, you'll be charged for your vehicle or your guide, you'll most likely have to camp and will have to pay for that... the list of fees goes on and on.
In the end, most people pay about $400 to $500 a person just to enter a Tanzanian National Park per day! Whoa! And I'm not even going to talk about the thousands of dollars it costs to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
After having been so excited to come to Tanzania, once we got here and the reality of the costs hit us, I was worried this country was going to be a bust. Besides the fact that motorcycles aren't allowed in the parks, I had hoped we could at least join a game drive or tour or something... but alas, these things were all out of our budget.
But it turns out that there is something that Tanzania can offer the adventure motorcyclist that is free, if you're willing to do it: tough but scenic roads. And what I mean by tough roads is that Tanzania is an off-roader's heaven of difficulty, beauty, and unique cultural experiences.
We entered Tanzania from the south, and as we left Lake Malawi in the distance, the scenery surrounded us with green mountains rippling off into blues and purples as far as the eye could see. Swahili could be heard everywhere, the people smiled and welcomed us from every store and stall by saying “Karibu", and we happily settled in to a cheap hotel called Warsame Guesthouse (I'm talking $7 a night) in Mbeya (by the way, we're not paid by any of hotels and accommodations I've put in this blog. I simply linked the places because I liked them.) The internet there worked, the family who owned it was friendly, and as the summer rains drummed on the roof, we decided to relax and get some computer work done. We ended up staying for two weeks.
I noticed that compared to Zambia and Malawi, there seemed to be more industry going on in Tanzania. There were cobblers (I fixed my boot zippers!), mechanics, bakeries, and book stores. Little 250cc motorcycles zoomed around and they were loaded with everything you could think of: furniture, goats, baskets full of chickens, and of course, grandma, mama, and her baby all piled on the back.
Feeling refreshed from Mbeya, we headed north through the center of Tanzania along the main highway. Since all the parks along the way didn't allow motorcycles, and were too expensive to visit anyway, we reluctantly passed them by. We went straight to the tourist town of Arusha because we had some repairs to make on the bike and had heard of a few knowledgable motorcycle enthusiasts living there.
But along the way we had a surprise. Meeting other motorcycle travelers in Africa has been a rare occurrence. But as we were stopped at one of Tanzania's many speed traps, we pulled over to find ourselves next to an Italian couple traveling on a KTM 1290 Super Adventure! Two-up, just like us, also with Mosko Moto soft luggage, and on practically the same bike (ours is the 1190), we just couldn't believe it!
After talking our way out of a speeding ticket, we all stopped at a roadside restaurant to have some lunch together. Gianmaria Colangeli and his girlfriend Lucia were headed through Africa in the same direction as us, but because he had to get back to Italy in the spring to run his hotel and motorcycle tour business (Macedonia Adventures), they would be going much faster.
Still, though we had to momentarily split ways as they headed to Zanzibar, we all planned on meeting again sometime soon. And after a week or so, this great reunion in Arusha turned into one of the best adventures we've had in Africa!
First we met up with an adventure motorcycle friend in Arusha named Simon who owns a beautiful lodge there called The Outpost. In Arusha we got some repairs done, an oil change, and Simon gave us great advice on roads to take. Then when Gianmaria and Lucia arrived, we headed off into the wilds of northern Tanzania.
These two days of riding down rough roads turned out to be exactly what I was looking for out of Tanzania. No, we didn't see lions (actually, that's probably a good thing considering they like to chase motorcycles), but we did see giraffes, zebra, ostriches, and a very big strange bird called the kori bustard, which is considered to be the heaviest living animal capable of flight.
But what really made this journey special was that the road was so bad and washed out in sections by rivers and small canyons, we had to work as a team to get through these challenges. And I have to say we made a great team.
We all fell many times: they slipped out from a muddy section once or twice, we slid down a hill when Tim accidentally had the bike in neutral, just to name a few. But overall, these guys were champs at getting across all these washouts, sand traps, river crossings, and steep mud hills. I couldn't be more proud of Tim.
But the coolest part was the Maasai people who we met. These indigenous pastoralists of northern Tanzania are tall, lean, and majestically beautiful in their red and purple checkered clothing which they drape over their shoulders. The women have bald heads and wear beaded bands on their arms along with shiny metal earrings which stretch out their earlobes. The men also have elongated earlobes and sometimes “tattoo" their faces with burn marks.
We could never speak each other's languages, but whenever we came to an impassable section of road, we'd ride through the tall grasses until we found a Maasai camp with cattle everywhere and warriors holding sticks and sometimes spears. They could figure out easily enough that we needed to get across the ravine that had formed from the recent rains, and they'd show us where they usually get their livestock across.
It was a truly incredible adventure, and it makes me proud just thinking back on the fact that we were so far out there in the Serengeti that there was no way any other vehicles could go along that road. The only other people out there were those who traveled by donkey or foot.
That night, we couldn't find a proper place to stay, so we wild camped in the bush. We cooked up some steaks which we'd been carrying, but unfortunately, due to all the falls of the day, the steak bag had burst and got raw meat juice all over Gianmaria's tent bag.
“Hopefully the smell doesn't attract lions," he said with a frown. I got out our pepper spray and kept our GPS emergency button close to me all night long, but luckily, we were only greeted by the locals in the morning who seemed to come out of the woodwork and shake our hands with warm smiles and stares of curiosity.
Unfortunately, Gianmaria and Lucia had to keep on their schedule and head into Kenya that day. But Tim and I decided to do some more exploring of Tanzania's wonders. So we said our goodbyes and hopefully we'll all meet again one day, maybe in Italy.
Next on our list was to ride around Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain of the African continent and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. We waited for the morning mist to pass, and spent hours traversing a loop road around the peak. The views did not disappoint.
After that we decided to tackle another one of Simon's road suggestions and do a particularly hard mountain pass up the West Usambaras Mountain Range to a hotel called Mambo View Point. After the difficultly of the first road Simon told us to do, I don't really know what we were thinking, especially now that we didn't have a pair of Italian superheroes to help us. And the first road didn't have cliff edges to deal with, which definitely upped the level of danger. One fall could mean the end of the trip!
In all honesty, I would not recommend this road to anyone unless they are on an unloaded dirt bike, and definitely not with a passenger. This was some seriously tricky stuff, especially due to the recent onslaught of rain, but once again, Tim was an absolute master! We arrived at the top of the pass at a whopping 6,000 ft above sea level (2,000 meters), stayed a lovely night at Mambo View Point, and felt quite accomplished with ourselves and happy to be alive.
And for our final escapade in Tanzania, we decided to take a break from the dirt and instead head to the beach. We'd earned it I think.
Tanzania is famous not just for the Lion King and the Serengeti, but also for its amazing coastline. Because we had skipped the island of Zanzibar, we thought we'd still try to get a glimpse of some beautiful turquoise waters by dipping into the sea near Tanga, at another place that Simon owns, Fish Eagle Point. Simply stunning. The water was like salty bath water, and just as clear. And because it was the off-season, it was our own private tropical paradise.
But unlike the mountains, the coast of Tanzania was hot. Sweltering is an understatement. So after a sticky night camping on the beach, we decided to cool off back in the mountains, and are now on our way west to Rwanda and Uganda (where we may actually see some lions while riding on the bike, ahhh!).
So stay tuned, and keep your eyes out for Tim's new book covering from when we left our home in Chicago and headed south through Central America. It's called Two-Up and Overloaded, and it's sure to be full of laughs and adventures. It will probably be launching within the next week!
One last crazy tidbit: here in Tanzania they use something called Swahili time. Since sunrise and sunset are always the same time throughout the year, they've set their clocks so that the day starts at 6:00am, meaning that's 12:00 midnight. So to tell time in Swahili you have to take away 6 hours and switch am with pm. What??!!!!!
I still find this hard to believe that it's a real thing, but it is. Enjoy this random fact for the day...
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