Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Udzungwa Mountains

Tuesday, July 27, 2005

It wasn't just another weekend. It wasn't really just another weekend in Africa.

My bike has been fairly lonely since I retrieved it from the evil customs guys. I've been intending to take it out more but I'm a little gun shy (literally). I found out about this trip organized by these two guys - Mejah (from Tanzania) and Tende (from Zimbabwe) - and jumped on it. We met on Friday at noon downtown Dar. Seven tourists, our guides, and a driver loaded into our white van. The tourists consisted of a girl from Dresden, Germany, five other Americans and me. Mark, a visiting MD, was the one who notified me about the trip. He was with his wife and 14-year-old son. The other two Americans were a couple that turned out to be fairly annoying but nothing that spoiled the trip.

The bikes were stacked on top of each other on a rack that was made for luggage. It was pretty precarious to look at - 7 bikes stacked like pancakes - but they held for the 6-hour drive. I actually wasn't even that sure where we were headed. I had thought it was north but it turned out to be almost due west. We headed towards the city of Morogoro on paved road and continued on through Mikumi National Park. This park is adjacent to the Selous Game Reserve where I was a couple of weekends ago. Driving through Mikumi turned out to be a treat in that we saw tons of wildlife not only close to the road but sometimes walking across it. More zebras, giraffes, impalas, baboons, elephants, wildebeest, and buffalo. Can't seem to get enough of the animals.

We stayed in a town just on the other side of the park called Mikumi. It was a small town and we didn't actually visit much. We pretty much arrived, checked into the hotel, had dinner, and went to bed.

The next day we were up at 5am, had breakfast, and hopped on our bikes. It was nice to be back on my MTB as we headed out on paved road towards the Udzungwa Mtns. It was a pretty strange morning to be honest. It was a bizarre sight for these people to see a bunch of whities riding bicycles through their village. They occasionally get a passing vehicle with gringos but never a crew of seven and two guides with dreadlocks all on mountain bikes. It was like we were on parade. Kids would run to the side of the road shouting "Mambo!" (informal hello) and more often "Wazungu!" (whities). The latter is not really a derogatory term. Just descriptive I'm told. I hear it some in Dar but not that much since we are more common in the big city.

All the attention we drew as we rode started to become kind of a pain in the ass. We couldn't stop anywhere without drawing a decent crowd, mostly kids, staring at us. Some adolescents and adults would try to sell us stuff but the kids just stared. I nabbed a few photos but picture taking is a delicate thing here. Some people are very sensitive about it and if they catch you taking one of them they'll ask you to pay and/or tell you to stop. There's this fear that they are being exploited or being observed in their primitive state like zoo animals. To some extent that's probably true for some safari goers though I suspect that it's more common of the northern circuit crowd (Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, etc.). The other parts of Tanzania tend to be visited by the more hearty crowd like those that live in the country, people who hang out with Tanzanians on a regular basis and are simply capturing beauty or special moments.

In any case, drawing attention gets old quickly. You don't get to enjoy simple observation of the people doing what they do. You see them dropping what they're doing to observe you. I suppose the irony is that if they had cameras they'd be pointing them at us for the same reasons they don't want them pointed at themselves.

We came up to a traveling theater thing that was going on in a very small village of mud huts. A decent-sized crowd had gathered around and were watching with considerable excitement. These people don't get that many distractions like this. It was a very awkward moment. My first thought was, how cool, let's watch what's going on. We all quickly realized, however, that we had to keep it moving quickly to go as unnoticed as possible and not to steal the crowd from the actors. Try as we might to speed through, we still ended up pulling a lot of the kids away causing a pause in the action. Oh well.

Sixty-five kilometers later we arrived at our lunch spot which as a dilapidated old German outpost from the colonial days. With the remnants of the fancy old building as a backdrop, we ate our sandwiches and rested before the big hike up to the falls. Not everyone was super athletic and the thought of a big hike after the long morning on the bike was causing some anguish in the group. Once we got going, however, people were so into the change of scenery that they forgot their fatigue.

This is the only place in the world that you find certain species of animals. Probably the most noteworthy is the red colobus monkey. Neal and I had seen colobus in Selous but not this kind with the dark red on the top of their heads. Sightings are rare and they told us not to get our hopes up. After a few other monkey and baboon sightings, we did in fact get to see a few red colobus. It was pretty cool, I have to tell you.

When we arrived at the falls, we were all drenched with sweat. It was a hot and humid hike and I was SO ready to take a dip. The triple-decker falls was spectacular and well worth the hike. In case you're wondering, I'm the speck in the white water near the bottom of the photo.

After about a half-hour of swimming and jumping off rocks, we continued the hike to the very top of the falls. The view was amazing and I could have sat there for hours. You could see back to Mikumi and Selous, the road we rode in on, etc. So beautiful. We then headed down and, with the exception of a deadly green snake in the trail, the trip down was uneventful.

It was getting dark and some opted for the van to go the last few kilometers to our hotel for the night. I made the mistake of encouraging the American guy and the guides to ride the rest of the way. The sketchy ride on a nasty road with an occasional vehicle nearly running us over and the constant threat of being mugged made for a heart pounding seven miles or so. The primary mugging danger is one that happens here in Dar on lesser traveled roads. The car passes you and doubles back to come pop you and take your bike and belongings. In the middle of nowhere you've got no one to get your back. Even our guides were a bit concerned until the light of the hotel was in sight. It wasn't that I was trying to be daring. It was such a nice evening and had the guide guessed correctly about how far the hotel was, I probably wouldn't have done it. We made it so all is well.

When we got to the hotel you can bet I was looking for a cold beer and a shower. The rooms had running water but just the cold, brownish kind. Consequently they come by with a bucket of hot water and set it outside your door. You take the bucket into the shower and wash the way I learned in the Cรดte d'Ivoire. You use a cup, add cool water to your comfort level and just keep dumping it on your head and soaping until you are clean or you run out of hot water, whichever comes first. It was actually pretty satisfying.

The guides prepared our meals themselves and they were actually pretty good cooks. We feasted on lentils, mixed veggie sauce, and ugali (the basic staple in East Africa, kind of like dry Cream of Wheat served in a ball about the size of a baby's head).

Everyone was pretty tired so we all faded pretty quickly after dinner. I went to my room and unfortunately failed to remember one of the more common rules about sleeping in Africa. Always pull back the covers and inspect the bed before getting in. Yep, you know where this is going. I read in bed for a while and right as I was getting ready to shut off my headlamp, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Thinking (hoping) it was just a shadow from my light, I almost didn't even check to see what it was. I did and a big, hairy spider was crawling in my direction out from underneath the sheet. My only tool under the mosquito net was my Tanzania guidebook and I decided that's yet another handy use for it. I smashed the thing until it was motionless and curled up in a ball. I let up a little because he was so big I thought the juices might make sleeping a bit messy. I tossed his hairy ass on the floor and inspected my bed for any relatives that might have accompanied him. Confident there were none, I went to sleep.

The next morning I looked for him on the ground not wanting to step on him and he was gone. The bastard had been faking death and now was on the loose again. Fearing he might be in my clothes or shoes I held off taking my morning pee until spidey's location was identified. Sure enough, I shook him out of my pant leg. While I sort of had developed some respect for the little guy, I nonetheless finished the job I started so poorly the night before making a mess of the floor.

After a rather slow breakfast, the bikes were once again stacked like pancakes on top of the van. Luckily mine was on top again since it would be removed first at the end of the journey. We went as far as Morogoro before stopping for a late lunch - more veggie bits and ugali. On the drive we passed a nasty accident responsible for multiple deaths. Gruesome sight and it looked like it had been there for at least an hour or so. The police had been there long enough that they figured they'd take advantage of the situation. Our van containing wazungu was waved over and they began the ritual of seeking a bribe of some kind. The obvious target was the bike stack. The invented infraction du jour was that it surpassed the legal height of roof baggage. Having seen Tanzanian buses stacked much higher (and much more impressively) you sort of have to smile when they come up with stuff like that.

I've been pulled over several times now and it's always the same ritual. The cop makes something up and threatens to throw you in jail. You have a conversation about something that you both know is a bunch of crap knowing full well what he wants. You continue to pretend like you don't and he keeps threatening (holding you) until you get frustrated and offer to pay all or part of the amount he came up with. In Tanzania it seems that $20 is roughly the starting point. Impatient or frightened wazungu often start reaching for their wallet fairly quickly. If you're very respectful and not in a hurry, you can often get away without paying anything.

Our guides failed in this instance because the cop told them that we were going to get stopped the rest of the way to Dar and that if we paid this time and he gave us a receipt, we'd be off the hook the rest of the way. He was right on all accounts given that we were pulled over another two times after that.

Other than a dead-ish looking body on the side of the road that had been hit by a vehicle, the drive was uneventful until we were coming into Dar. A spectacular 6-car accident happened right in front our van. Our driver slammed on the brakes and one of our guides stepped out, flashlight in hand, to go help out. It was chaos on the road. Traffic was backing behind us. People came running from all over. Some were yelling for a doctor. As it turned out, I happened to have had a doctor sitting right next to me. Strangely, Mark didn't move a muscle. Now I don't know about these things but it would seem to me that in the land of no lawsuits, you've got to be hard-pressed for a reason not to go at least check it out. I mean you came to Africa to help out Tanzanians and a situation like this presents itself and... well...Mark just sat and stared out at the chaos.

I couldn't resist the temptation and I jumped out to check out the situation. My motivation was less hero and more voyeur. As it turned out, even with all the vehicle carnage, amazingly no one was seriously hurt. When I came back to announce the good news, Mark decided he'd get out and take his voyeur turn. I don't want to be judgmental about the incident. You never know what's going on in someone's mind and what you should do in these situations. Ultimately everything turned out ok so I'll leave it at that.

After being stuck in traffic seemingly forever, we finally were able to maneuver around the accident and get back central Dar. Another Tanzanian adventure under my belt. Now back to work.


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