by Mark Cosslett
When I first met Peter, he could run faster than ride. In fact, Peter could run faster than most in our group could ride. He was a member of the Maasai tribe, whose members were described as "fierce warriors" during the colonial days. "Consummate athletes" seemed more appropriate now, as I watched Peter leap and bound across the African landscape with as much grace as the wildlife found there. Peter said he was 22 years old, but didnąt know when his birthday was. Fran, his employer, said he had been 22 for several years and figured 25 or 26 was closer to the mark.
Six of us had traveled nearly halfway around the globe to mountain bike across Peterąs homeland in Northern Tanzania. Our tour took us from Mount Meru to the Serengeti Plains over the course of ten days. Peter was one of the five support crew members riding in two Land Rovers. Of course, his name wasnąt really Peter. He just went by that because his Maasai name was difficult for us to get our mouths around. And, of course, Peter didnąt ride in a Land Rover if given half a chance to jump out and run alongside the bikes. At the end of our tour, I decided it was high time he learned to ride.
A Crash Course in Mountain Biking
Our tour company needed a local guide, and a Kilimanjaro circuit seemed the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone: train Peter and explore a new area. He eagerly agreed to a baptism by fire: 250 miles around Mount Kilimanjaro. What I didnąt know at the time was that Peter had never ridden a bike. The toe clips were the first thing to go – way too complicated and risky. Then, there were the gears to contend with. A fundamental knowledge of their operation was essential.
The bikes were one of the latest editions from Iron Horse. Grip shifts made our lesson in gears easier and front shocks probably prevented a few falls. We only had one set of panniers between us, so I carried most of the load (requisite tent, stove, cook set, food, etc.). This gave Peter a chance to learn bike handling skills without another 30 to 40 pounds of dead weight to contend with, though he still carried his own sleeping bag and extra clothing.
Our original plan was to ride around Mount Kilimanjaro on dirt roads and singletracks over the course of four days. From day one, I could see Peter wouldnąt be able to keep the pace. On day two, he confessed it was his first time riding a bike. I was faced with a critical decision: Send him back while he was still just a day from home and go on alone, or extend the trip to six days and work on his bike skills. I chose the latter and radioed back to our lodge on Mount Meru, informing them not to expect us for another five days.
I slackened the pace to ride alongside Peter and coach him a bit. The problem was immediately apparent: His butt never left the seat. Peter's strength and stamina were fine, it was his technique that needed work. I tried to demonstrate how to stand on the pedals in order to gain power up the hills and control (hence, speed) on the descents. Despite my efforts, his butt remained firmly planted.
In a moment of frustration, I took his seat away. It was a crude teaching technique that he didn't appreciate much, but it worked. Peter was soon powering up the hills and using his legs like shock absorbers on the way down. He was a bit quiet after I gave him his seat back, but the more he used his new skills the more he seemed to forgive me. We were soon friends again. "Now we're in business," I thought to myself. And we were.
A Stranger in Strange Lands
"Mzungu! Mzungu!" It was a cry I was to hear endless permutations of during the next five days. Peter was teaching me some KiSwahili in return for his mountain bike lessons, but the meaning of this word was self-evident: "White man." Adults seemed to use it as a form of greeting. Small children used it like a chant as they ran alongside me in a joyous frenzy. Even bewildered toddlers would utter it in observation before darting back into the fields to hide behind the maize.
When biking in third-world countries, well off the beaten tourist track, one becomes a bit of a spectacle. A flat tire usually draws a crowd of twenty to thirty. When I stopped to buy fruit and vegetables, I counted over fifty children in a sea of curiosity pressed tightly against me. Aiming the camera at their smiling faces always sent them scattering like so many leaves in a gust of wind. I never discovered why they were so camera shy; perhaps the younger ones had never even seen a camera. In any event, my strange picture-making device often proved more effective for comic relief and crowd control than for photographs.
We also encountered a few less savory sorts. Approaching the Kenyan border, we stumbled into two shady characters illegally changing money at a shack beside the dirt road. They betrayed their ill intent by asking all the wrong questions: "How much are those bikes worth?" and "Where do you plan to spend the night?"
That evening we camped deep in the forest and carried our bikes off the road so as not to leave any tell-tale tire tracks in the soft dirt. Even then, we were discovered by a small group of astonished Maasai women who were gathering firewood. Iąm sure they spoke of the Mzungu sleeping in the woods when they returned to the village, but no one came back to investigate.
We were warned of bandits near the Kenyan border, so we wasted no time wrapping around the mountain to gain its eastern slopes. The scenery was in a constant state of flux, but navigation was simple. We just kept Kilimanjaro over our right shoulder and continued riding.
In Search of the Perfect Campsite
At an elevation of 7,000 to 10,000 feet, the foothills of Kilimanjaro provide some of the most fertile land in Tanzania. Our path became more and more crowded with small farms. Eventually, no open spaces remained for our tent. We finally spotted a small, flat, uncultivated patch of grassland stretched out above the Kenyan plains like a lush, green carpet. Mawenzi Peak towered above; a small, rocky outcrop on the shoulder of Kilimanjaro. I immediately slammed on the brakes and asked Peter to inquire about camping on this prime piece of African real estate.
Peter soon returned with Felix, a bantam African man in his late thirties. He had few teeth remaining, but possessed a wide, infectious smile just the same. We shook hands firmly and he graciously offered to have us camp on his land. He left us alone to set up camp, but soon returned with a large bucket of water and transistor radio.
Felix had sired nine children, but only six remained alive (the infant mortality rate is high in Africa). Those six soon surrounded our camp, spying on us pensively through the thin foliage. When I returned their wide-eyed stares with a wink or a smile, they would always giggle and run away, caught in their game.
Peter was less accustomed to being gawked at. "Haven't you ever seen a Mzungu before?!" he scolded them. They shook their little heads innocently and he said, "We'll bring plenty more for you to look at soon. Leave us now to cook dinner in peace!"
Cooking was my job, while Peter was in charge of bike maintenance. He lubed chains and gears with some motor oil we had picked up from a farmer, while I stirred up a strange brew of fresh vegetables and noodles over our small camp stove. We weren't exactly taking advantage of each other's strong points, but bike maintenance was part of Peter's training. As for my cooking, well, we survived.
Felix returned and gazed inquisitively at my avocado stew, so I offered him some. At first he declined, but at my insistence he finally filled a small cup. He politely swallowed a spoonful, forced a smile, then fed the rest to the dog when he thought I wasn't looking (the dog had the same reaction).
East Africans are quintessential carnivores and Tanzanians are no exception. Meat for breakfast, meat for lunch, beef jerky to snack on through the day, and then more meat for dinner. Of course, a little milk, bread, and maize are thrown in to round things out. Peter and I soon formed an unspoken agreement: He didn't complain too much about being a vegetarian for a week, and I kept my mouth shut when the gears skipped.
A small crowd gathered when we broke camp in the morning. The local village chief had his nose out of joint since no one informed him of our presence. Felix shook his head incredulously as our sleeping bags, pads, tent, and stove all magically transformed into small packages which fit inside our bike packs.
An Unexpected Sanctuary
The deep river valleys on Kilimanjaro's southern slopes gently nudged us off her contours, like the tangled roots of a forbidden forest protecting secret treasures. Every trail led down to "Moshi Town," a backwater metropolis with all the charm of a Nile Crocodile. The dirt path we had followed for the last four days slowly, inexorably lost its jagged edge as it veered towards Moshi. Pavement and power lines finally encroached; unwelcome reminders that progress prevailed. At the sight of it, we took the first detour heading back up the mountain and into the verdant forest.
Our destination for the day became a seminary in the small mountain village of Muau: We heard rumors that it was a safe haven for aberrant travelers. Peering in through the huge metal gates, it seemed like a deserted slice of paradise. Ivy and bushes discreetly camouflaged the barbed wire and broken bits of glass placed on the high walls to protect this refuge. The grounds were meticulously groomed, like a Japanese garden, but no one guarded the unlocked gate.
Wandering inside, we felt like trespassers until we finally spotted one of the priests. He was an elderly man with a long white beard. He wore a brown alb gathered around his narrow waist with a heavy rope cincture. He took no notice of us until we made our clumsy introductions. Without the slightest interrogation, he began showing us around, as if he had been expecting our visit for some time. He pointed out the variety of fruits and vegetables growing in nurtured gardens and explained the history of the place.
I wanted to ask about spending the night, but his manner left little room for interruptions. Silence seemed a better tactic anyway, so Peter and I relaxed and enjoyed the tour. It was soon clear that Father Latislouse, a Swiss man, had long since presumed we were overnight visitors. He pointed out a nice grassy area for us to pitch our tent, led us to a cool, capacious pool and invited us to shower and swim in the late afternoon sunshine.
The sun set on Kilimanjaro and her glaciers blushed in ethereal pink hues. Seeing all sides and moods of Kilimanjaro as we had -- naked as the day she was born in the morning, bold and stalwart during the mid-day heat, bashfully gathering clouds around her as evening approached -- it was easy to become obsessed with this famous icon of Africa. Peter and I both agreed her finest countenance fell upon Muau Seminary.
Sublime Singletracks in High Places
The next day ushered in the best riding of our Kilimanjaro circuit, even some of the best found anywhere in the world. A paved road connecting Moshi with Arusha would have been the quickest way home, but we tried to avoid pavement whenever possible: That was the realm where third-world "road warriors" presided with their monstrous trucks and buses. Our objective was to stay high on Kilimanjaro and remain protected by her wilderness. We used the network of singletracks between small villages to work our way around the southern side of the mountain.
It was easy to get lost, but we were rewarded with fast descents and fun climbs on smooth dirt trails that zig-zagged surreptitiously through the hidden forests. Just when we thought the riding couldn't get any better, we'd pop out of the trees and be greeted by the vigilant eyes of Kilimanjaro.
We spent most of the day finding our way to "Old Moshi," a quaint mountain village that is the antithesis of "Moshi Town." A deep river valley blocked all westward trails, like an aquatic guardian over verboten lands. The directions given for Machame, the next village on our way home, were always the same: "You must go down to Moshi, along the paved road towards Arusha, then back up to Machame." This involved losing and regaining over 4,000 precious vertical feet, and riding more than 25 extra miles, not to mention mucking around in Moshi (an unpleasant proposition).
I assumed the directions given for Machame, only a few miles away as the crow flies, were yet another instance of the locals underestimating the capabilities of our bikes.
I said to Peter, "Tell them we plan to walk to Machame. Ask them where the walking track is."
"Heavy rains wash away footbridge," was their laconic response. "Unless bikes have wings, you go Moshi."
It was nearly dark by the time we arrived in Machame (yes, via -- ugh!!! -- Moshi). Camping is a bit more complicated in Africa, and usually involves finding an "Askari" (guard) for the evening. I always assumed tourists were the only ones who needed to be careful, that crime was directed at the white man with all his material possessions. Here, high up on the mountain and well away from tourism, I saw how wrong I was. Bars covered the windows of small houses, and doors were double-locked. The juxtaposition of green foliage and cold, hard steel was like seeing a piece of Harlem in a tropical rain forest. I suddenly realized how much crime had interwoven itself into the fabric of the culture.
Kilimanjaro winked at me mischievously as twilight played on her glaciers once again. Unable to resist, I strode out to the middle of the village square, set up the tripod, and snatched a few frames.
Peter's thoughts were written all over his disgruntled face when I returned: "Great, as if the bikes werenąt enough. Now everyone knows we have expensive camera gear too!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I replied to his unspoken reprimand. "I know -- we damn sure better find a safe place tonight."
There were no hotels or designated campsites, so we asked permission to pitch our tent on the grounds of a well-guarded private school for girls. They declined, but the school accountant took pity on us and offered accommodations with her and her family.
Sleeping in their house was a big change from the familiar nylon of our tent. The livestock were kept in the basement and the toilet was a hole in the ground outside. There was no power (hence, no light), which made nighttime trips to the dark hole in the ground an even more sordid affair.
Their youngest daughter was rushed off to hospital in the middle of the night: yet another bout with malaria. Amazingly, this was a high standard of living in Tanzania. They seemed happy, but I was still grateful to be but a visitor to their lifestyle.
We started early the next morning for Sonya Ju, the next small village to the west. Peter asked directions and got a familiar response: "You go down to the road, head west towards Arusha, then go back up to Sonya Ju." Again, we asked about walking tracks. Again, there were none. We asked everywhere in our frustration, but all we heard was, "You go down to the road."
The game was up. This was our last day, and we had no time for further detours. Reluctantly, we did what we were told: We rode down to the road, headed west (forgetting all about climbing back up to Sonya Ju), and hammered out the fifty miles to Arusha.
Biking along busy roads in third-world countries is about as much fun as riding in the Sierra Nevada during hunting season. Hoping to put an early end to the misery, I pounded hard on the pedals. Heat radiated from the asphalt in waves that melted our vision of the African landscape. I thought of writing a book and calling it "MMBA" (Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa). I didnąt see Peter again until I was 30 minutes into my lunch break in the welcome shade of an acacia tree. I knew he need only ask which way the Mzungu on the bike went in order to find me, which he did on several occasions.
I taught Peter how to draft to keep him close, and demonstrated when the locals rushed past on their single-speed clunkers. I guess they just couldnąt resist racing against our modern bikes. We let them pass, then glued ourselves to their rear wheel and rode the draft until they exhausted themselves. After shifting into high gear and standing on the pedals, we shot past them with a burst of speed and shouted, "Asante sana!" (Thank you very much!) We didn't make many friends that way, but we got to Arusha much faster.
Back at the Adventure Center in Arusha (home base for our mountain bike safaris), we cooked the last of our food in the store room on our camp stove. I asked Fran (Peter's boss) where I could find a mirror. I hadn't seen my reflection for six days. She chuckled and said, "You might want to find a shower first." Judging from the bemused stares beset upon us throughout Arusha, she was probably right.