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Old 02-21-2011, 06:48 AM   #1
Osadabwa OP
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Thumb Tomato and Biltong Soup: The Kilombero Valley Bush, Bikes and Rivers Safari

Day Trippin' in remotest Tanzania... are you in? Check out the 25 second teaser.

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Old 02-23-2011, 11:04 PM   #2
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From the mountain to the valley

We left Dar later than planned on Maulid, Muhammad’s birthday and a national holiday in Tanzania. The holiday explained the traffic somewhat, and maybe one traffic cop’s persistent, but futile, attempts to extort “tea” from us on the road. Ajax at the wheel, Bean in the back, and I on CD duty, the pickup’s cab was full, as was the bed – loaded with gear- and the trailer behind (a homemade behemoth from a Peugeot frame) groaned from the weight of the bikes as we rattled over the potholes and speed bumps on westbound Morogoro Road.


Above: Africa's hard on motorbikes, a very prohibitive signpost, the bikes on the road.

Less than half way to the ride point and smack in the middle of Mikumi National Park, we repaired our trailer’s first of two punctures while a baboon watched from the roadside. Later on, dusk approaching, the stunning Lukasi River Valley and the mountains near Iringa was the setting for our second puncture. More of a blowout really, the hole in the sidewall was as big as a golf ball.


Above: Hills of the Lukasi Valley, our baboon spectator, blowout #2

It ended up being an 11 hour drive to Sao Hill, where we joined our fellow riders “Lucky”, “Sawmill” and “Tarmac”. Lucky was our host, and greeted us with cold beers and bad news. He would not be coming along, so his KTM 620 LC4 would just have to sit in his garden gazebo while the rest of us explored the Kilombero Valley. Beat from the road, we crashed early and awoke to the Southern Highlands’ refreshingly cool mountain air.

Sao Hill, located in the Southern Highlands, sits nearly a mile high among rolling hills and pine plantations. We fueled up at the sawmill’s petrol station, surrounded by lorries and great beastly machines used for clawing up and transporting piles of lumber around the yard. Our rides: one KTM 520, a KTM 450, a Honda XR400 and two Honda XR250s. The ride was finally underway!


Above: Workers’ bicycles (note man-eating snake mud flap), our cabin, the sawmill fuel station

We had GPS waypoints for part of the highlands, but were interested in finding a small track off the back of the mountains to Mlimba on the TAZARA Railway line in the Kilombero Valley below. We rode through misty pine forests and open, rolling highland hills, past villages perched on hilltops and over red-earth tracks traversing the emerald green patchwork of tea estates. Some houses were neat, plantation type, with small chimneys smoking in the morning air while others were of the traditional mud and thatch variety. In total contrast to Dar es Salaam, people plodded the muddy paths in sweaters to keep out the cold, and others carried dark umbrellas in resignation, anticipation and preparation for precipitation.


Above: In the pine plantation, overlooking the highlands


Above: Comparing GPS routes, the tea estates, walkers and riders

At the end of our GPS tracks, we relied on local knowledge and Ajax and Bean’s mastery of Kiswahili to move forward. Looking for tracks is an iterative process. Two steps forward, one step back. We stopped a man on a bicycle, and then we talked to some boys by a shop before finally accepting a short escort from a man on a Chinese motorcycle who got us going in the right direction. After zigzagging and backtracking for a couple of hours, we were making progress, and the views were great.


Above: Mountain view hut, getting directions, Tarmac hanging loose

Toward the edge of the escarpment, steeper, more aggressive terrain greeted us and the track was narrower and less traveled. Coffee plants dotted the hillsides and the steady, cold rain sprinkled our goggles.


Above: Red bike on green carpet, coffee plant ride-by, bridge in the hills


Above: Hillside tracks

Just as it started to rain Tarmac lost his luggage on a bump, scattering it everywhere on the trail and continuing on oblivious (a mistake caused by the improper use of mpira, the ubiquitous rubber strapping used for tying down loads) and I dropped my bike while trying to turn around (no comment). The latter mistake must have fractured my gear shifter which had all but fallen off by the time we reached the top of the descent.


Above: More hillside riding

After a coke and a quick gear shifter swap in the rain, we began the steep, switchbacked gravel road descent to the sunshine and heat of the Kilombero Valley below. Gravel doesn’t really do this road justice. It was more like a dump truck had dropped loose concrete aggregate for a large construction job 5 inches deep on the road. The steepness, combined with this most unstable of road surfaces demanded all of our attention, which kept being distracted by the spectacular views of the waterfall cascading off the escarpment to the valley below.


Above: Raincoats, broken shifter, misty view


Above: The gravel descent, the waterfall, and the crossroads

At the crossroads, where the tarmac begins, we doffed raingear and ripped into Mlimba town for fuel (from buckets) and food (rice and beef stew, fried chicken, eggs and chips) before setting off into the afternoon heat on the track to Malinyi, the little agricultural town that would serve as our overnight spot.


Above: Buckets O’ Fuel, sign offering motorcycle travel, Sawmill and me

The track was twisty, fast, and fun, and ended abruptly at one of the many rivers that amble through the Kilombero Valley. Here, the bikes would have to be loaded on narrow dugout canoes and ferried across gondola style. Though I’ve done this before, it never ceases to get the mind racing with what ifs: “What if the bike goes in? What if I go in with these motocross boots on my feet?” Once out on the river, though, I experience a sense of calm elation and think: “This is why we ride bikes to backwater specks on the map like Malinyi! This is adventure riding by God!”


Above: Worried Tarmac and steady Bean, buzzing Sawmill, Ajax and I cross the river in dugout canoes


Above: 40 second clip of the crossing
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Old 02-24-2011, 08:29 AM   #3
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..."and others carried dark umbrellas in resignation, anticipation and preparation for precipitation".

WTF...stick to the pichas man!
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Old 02-28-2011, 07:03 AM   #4
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Bump!

Where are you?
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Old 03-01-2011, 04:33 AM   #5
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Lost in the long grass

After a rocky night’s sleep at the Sarafina Guest House in Malinyi, which featured warped wooden bedframes, lumpy foam mattresses, bucket baths and filthy Eastern style squat toilets, we were all eager to get on the move, but there was too much to do. I needed to weld my cracked shifter, we had to fuel up, find food, and start piecing together a ride to Njombe through a spot on the map utterly devoid of roads or villages. We started the day knowing for sure that we wouldn’t be able to predict what will happen during the day. Maybe we’d reach our destination, maybe we’d sleep in the bush, maybe we’d be trampled by Cape Buffalo, time would tell.


Above: The welding shop, filling up Bean’s bladder, the New Serengeti Night Pub, Sarafina

We backtracked on the previous day for a while before turning west into unknown territory. Ajax heard from a friend of a friend that bicycle traders ply a route through the hunting blocks and swamps that stand between Malinyi and the Njombe-Songea road. Our day’s challenge was to find them. Immediately that task took on an unlikely aura. Nobody we met offered hopeful advice until finally we quizzed a man who seemed very knowledgeable about the local bikeways. He began to describe the path ahead, but became doubtful when we said we wanted to reach Njombe. “Njombe?” he said, eyebrows raised, head bowed forward, arms suddenly limp, unsure. It seemed he would have found it simpler to describe the way to New York. But at Ajax’s affirmative reply, he reluctantly began what turned into a long, rambling animated discussion that from my point of view looked like a man describing a turkey riding a horse over a waterfall. But, since he said we could make it, forward ho!




Above: Our ‘helpful’ guide, thick grass, a tributary and some dried black cotton soil

Though overgrown with helmet-high, wide-leafed grass, the track we took was easy enough to follow at first. But soon the forest grew dark and the grass grew thicker, choking the path and tugging on the footpegs. There was not a soul around, no villages and no farms, nothing to indicate the way. Then suddenly we ran into the thatched perimeter fence of a hunting camp, empty save for a handful of watchmen on off-season anti-poaching patrol. They were surprised and made uneasy by our arrival. Nobody was supposed to be in that area until the dry season in three months’ time, and then they should arrive in 4x4s or on single prop airplanes, not growling motorbikes. And what’s this about going to Njombe? Are they mental? In typical Tanzanian fashion, however, they pointed us down a path and waved rather than let on that the Emperor was starkers.

From the camp, Ajax led through some beautiful riverine forest before finally killing the engine at what looked like little more than a hippo trail down to the slowly twisting, milky-tea colored water below. We would be fording the river this time. After walking the river’s approximately sixty meter width, Ajax determined that the deepest point would only be about thigh deep. That was all it took for Bean to fire up the KTM and dive straight in. Gunning it, the bike threw a roost of water and sand that completely obscured bike and rider from us on the bank before angrily coming to a halt about 1/3 of the way across. The deep sand made this method impossible. The rest of us would push and pull the bikes across. Goodbye dry feet, hello heat exhaustion. Too bad none of us remembered to bring more than 1 ˝ litres of water.




Above: Ajax checks the depth, Tarmac pushes the XR 250, Bean celebrates with a sip of Ballentines

After dragging our dripping bikes and bodies back out of the river, we plodded through the grass to Miombo hunting camp where two efficient watchmen in matching green uniforms, Antony and Simon, insisted we sign a register before they would allow us to proceed. Already agitated from the heat and the late start, this little bit of petty bureaucracy seemed ludicrous, and I for one considered just motoring off into the bush, leaving these big fish to their little, empty pond. But calm prevailed, and while we filled in the register and drained sand from our boots, Ajax and Bean quizzed the guys about the route ahead. Hopeful, we rode out on a sandy track ever deeper into the muggy heat of the hunting blocks.

Our optimism didn’t last long. In no time, the track split unexpectedly, leaving us to guess which way to go. Then, for the next four hours we hunted with varying degrees of utter successlessness for signs of the faint doubletrack that kept teasingly appearing on a slight rise, only to disappear again in the dried, hippo tracked mud below. Again and again, we fanned out, riding rough through the brush and trees in search of the path. Again and again we were on the point of giving up when somebody would find the track and the dim flame of hope would once more crackle back to life.


Above: Lost in the hunting blocks

Idling is not the KTM’s favorite activity, and Ajax’s steed vented its steam a couple of times, eventually refusing to restart electrically, leaving him to kick the beast to life the old fashioned way. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering exactly what the hell we’d do if one of the bikes died out there. The heat and the distance gave us a lot to ponder, actually. I checked my odometer near the last camp: it read 420 km. Four hours later: 439 km. Was I hallucinating? Damn! Another tsetse fly bite… sonsobitches are going to itch for a week! Joder, I’m thirsty… I wonder if anyone has any water… Faksake my feet hurt… soaking wet all day and crammed in these trashed boots, sand in all the cracks… Man, I’d kill for a beer.

We followed an elephant trail up the flank of a hill and turned back again, down into yet another seemingly endless dried mud plain on a “maybe”, and had become separated in the process of searching out the track. I found the others, then helped Tarmac lift his front wheel (most of the bike really) out of an animal hole. Finally, dead tired, sun well beyond its apex, no water left, a night in a hunting block full of elephant and buffalo staring us in the face and 70 km away from “civilization” through untracked bush, we hit our lowest point. Bean: “Lets explore until five o’clock, then turn back to Miombo Camp. What time is it?” Everybody: “Five o’clock”. We turned back.


Above: Tarmac digs to China, an elephant watering hole, giving up on the elephant path up the hillside

I think turning back is anathema to most bikers, so with it was with regret that we lugged back toward the camp, Ajax leading us back down the invisible trail using his GPS. Our slow, exhausted progress gave way to exhilaration as the late afternoon painted the foliage with golden light and the track widened enough to see its twists and turns. Throttles opened wide as we neared the camp, and we arrived tired, but in high spirits. The guards didn’t seem surprised to see us, saying simply: “pole sana” as we told our story of woe.


Above: Tomato and biltong soup hits the spot, our map, and the river view from our impromptu campsite

We had outdoor bucket baths in the twilight, smokey tomato and biltong soup for dinner, and Ballentines for an aperitif. The watchmen had erected two tents for us, but only had space in them for four. I came late, and felt like I’d drawn the short straw because I’d have to bunk in the big canvas mess tent for the night. The last laugh was mine though. At 3:00 AM, the first raindrops turned to a full-on downpour, and I just chuckled to myself as the rest of my underwear-and-headlamp-clad party flooded soaking wet and grumbling into the mess tent. Seems it wasn't so clever to skip putting on the rain flies!

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I used to have a link to my African rides in my signature line, but every time I check it doesn't work. So, if you want to see Kilimanjaro, the Kilombero Valley, a bunch of short trips around Dar and another long one to Mozambique: go to my profile.

Osadabwa screwed with this post 03-01-2011 at 04:41 AM
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Old 03-01-2011, 07:13 AM   #6
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Great RR... keep on.

>"long, rambling animated discussion that from my point of view looked like a man describing a turkey riding a horse over a waterfall"

Sounds like he was right.
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Old 03-03-2011, 12:13 AM   #7
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Bluhduh

WILL YOU PLEASE STOP WORKING AND GET THIS DAMN REPORT FINISHED
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Old 03-04-2011, 11:46 AM   #8
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Earth, air, water... and fire

Dawn broke to the crazed chatter of birdsong and the lazy dripping of dewdrops off the trees. The camp rooster called in the day, but despite our best efforts to get up early, we were thwarted by our collective reluctance to put on wet socks and boots. Slowly sipping sweet tea and eating our ˝ bar rations of Snickers, we still didn’t have a plan for returning to Sao Hill. After a while, Ajax and Bean got around to discussing possibilities with Simon and Anthony who volunteered to ferry us across the river on the camp’s aluminum boat. According to them, the track on the other side of the river should be easy to follow, then it’s just one more river crossing to civilization.


Above: Our tea, Simon drawing us a map, the watchmen’s brunch

Once the plan was set, and everyone has some food in their bellies, there was more action in camp. People were packing gear and talking, and I was brushing my teeth and admiring the slow progress of the river when I noticed the boat, our boat, drifting slowly by, unmanned and untethered. At about the same time, one of the guys from camp realized what was happening as well and began racing downstream, calling to the others to help out. We just watched it go, figuring that this meant we’d have to go back and ford the river where we crossed the previous day. But, in a stroke of luck, the boat got hung up on a downed tree at the river’s bend and the guys managed to crawl out to it and pole it back upstream.

By the time the boat was firmly anchored back at the camp’s launch, we were itching to go. Ajax and I loaded our bikes first and enjoyed a very stable ride across the river. What we saw on the other side, however, gave us pause: nothing but tall grass. Here we go again. Two by two, the bikes crossed the river. We bid our hosts farewell and with one more quick discussion about the trail (turn right, then left, then right again and you’ll find the other river) we vanished back into the tall, wet grass.




Above: The second boat crossing and a Golden Orb Weaver spider looking to hitch a ride

Not 100 Meters from the river, a downed tree knocked us off course. The two meter high grass made visibility difficult, and tugged at handlebars and feet while showering us with dew and the previous night’s rain. We had to help one another over a slippery diagonally downed log, and by 10:00 we hadn’t moved a kilometer and were already soaking wet and exhausted. The guys had assured us that it was only 45km to town, a distance that suddenly seemed impossibly far.

We pressed on and were rewarded. The grass thinned and the track became clearer. We felt confident that we were on the right path. We’d taken a right, and a left, now we just needed to take another right and we would be home free. So we rode on, searching for that illusive right turn. Just need to make one more right turn… but it never materializes. After fruitless searching, Tarmac gets a flat at a crossroads and the ensuing dialog causes a bit of a ruckus among the increasingly grumpy group:

Tarmac [sheepish]: Anyone have a tire lever?
Ajax [resigned]: Yes… (aside to me) even though my bike is using bib mousses.
Tarmac [more sheepish]: Puncture repair kit?
Ajax, Bean, Me [worried]: WTF?
Sawmill [strangely confident]: I have it, but I can’t find it…
Ajax, Bean, Tarmac, Me [really worried]: WTF!!???
Sawmill [blissfully unaware]: I have a spare tube though…

Leaving the Marx brothers behind to sort out Tarmac’s puncture, Ajax and I head off to explore the right fork in the road. It was a fool’s errand. The track curved back toward the camp. So we try a different track, but it was leading us in the opposite, yet equally wrong, direction. Stopping to confer, we saw a large herd of Cape Buffalo alongside the track ahead looking anxious at our presence. I was about to take a quick photo when Ajax whacks the throttle to shoo them away. The racket had a curiously contrary effect, however, and the group turns toward us on the run. That was all I needed. It was one kick, one turn, and full throttle in the other direction for me.


Above: 100 meters by 10:00 AM, Tarmac, Sawmill and the crossroads

Back with the others, we all took one last wrong turn up a fast track on a forested slope and were busy picking off what looked like threads of orange candy floss (the web of the Golden Orb Weaver spider) from our helmets when Ajax declared defeat. We could search forever and never find our way. We had limited water, no food, and our fuel was going to give out eventually. We would have to ride back to the river, call over to the camp and have one of the guys physically show us where the right track was supposed to be. Not even noon, and we were already backtracking.

Morale at a new low, we reluctantly turned back. But about half way back to the river, we see a promising unexplored track. Three of us wait while two bikes go to investigate. Celebrations began when we heard only one bike coming back for us. They’d found it! The river passed silently not half a click from where we’d been waiting.


Above: Ajax at the last river crossing, grass as twisted as our route, thumbs up to good news

We’d arrived at the river crossing to yet another hunting camp. Our yelling was finally heard by the watchmen on the other bank and they floated smoothly down to us in long dugouts. A pontoon large enough to carry a 4x4 was anchored at the opposite bank, but the cable attached to it looked like it had seen better days, so after a brief discussion we loaded bikes, for one final time, into the dugouts.


Above: One last canoe crossing

This time, we were home free. The camp had a much better road leading to it, and we finally had the chance to enjoy some steady, fast riding through the forests. The track was dry, but had patches of black cotton soil freshly soaked from the rain that kept things interesting. The riding was fantastic. Everybody was thrilled. Suddenly, we saw a person, then a field, then a village! Ajax declared that we’d returned to known territory at last, and we cruised along happily to the same sad bar in Mlimba for a hearty and much appreciated African lunch served by the surliest, slowest waitress in Kilombero Valley.




Above: Quick ride through the forest, back to civilization and food

It was three o’clock by the time we left Mlimba and clouds were hanging heavy on our highland destination. We could follow our waypoints now, and decided the best plan was to just bee line it for Sao Hill where Lucky would be waiting with a cooler of beer and a braai. The escarpment road, with its heavy gravel was a tire-ripper. The rain was on by the time we reached the top and it was cool and heavenly compared to the hunting blocks below. Amazingly, despite the rain, the tracks were not overly slick and we made decent time through the coffee, tea and pine plantations.


Above: One wet XR400, the escarpment climb, Sawmill and his fans

But we would not be able to avoid riding in the dark. Dusk found us scattered far and wide along the trail. Slag heaps and sawdust piles burned with high orange flames in the twilight like signal fires foreshadowing impending doom. Darkness fell and we slipped into it 2 abreast. Ahead, I watched as Ajax fell into a couple of long washouts, his KTM bucking like a wild horse. How he didn’t see his ass, I’ll never know. The next-to-useless XR headlamp I had illuminated the gray earth ahead of me just enough to give the slightest sense of groundedness, and I rode next to Tarmac and just behind Ajax and Bean to make use of their lights. After about an hour, my mind was playing tricks. It felt like I was floating, surreal and serene. It was a trip, but by the time we reached the pavement I was ready to call it quits.


Above: Last minute headlamp fix, night riding

The worst part of any ride for me is always on the highway at night. The area around Sao Hill is full of heavy trucks and busses coming and going, and every single one that approached us did so with a blast of their full high beams, blinding us and rendering our little headlights useless. It was only about 15 km, but it rattled my nerves, and I was ecstatic when we finally got on the driveway back to the compound. As promised, Lucky was there with a huge spread waiting for us in the pine gazebo. There was beer and wine, homemade bread, rice and a poike pot of Kudu stew that was to die for. We peeled away layers of muddy gear and huddled around charcoal warmers, spinning yarns and downing beers. It wasn’t a late night, however, the Kudu stew and beer were having their effect on our tired bones and we all turned in well before midnight.

Then, at 3:00 AM, I hear Ajax: “Lucky’s place is on fire!” From a deep sleep, I open my curtains to see a huge orange flame quietly crackling just beyond the fence at Lucky’s place. The entire gazebo was glowing hot. We ran outside, but there was nothing to be done. The charcoal warmers had apparently started the fire after everyone went to bed, and we were witnessing the aftermath.


Above: Lucky’s gazebo and KTM before… and after

We watched the fire burn for a while, feeling totally helpless but keeping an eye on the sparks should they land on a rooftop and make it a major disaster. The whole time, all I could think was how Lucky’s bike was in there, melting, turning to ash, and how if he had been able to come on the ride, his bike would have been saved. What a kick in the stomach. Amazingly though, Lucky remained serene about the whole thing, shrugging as he fruitlessly doused the flames with a totally inadequate garden hose.

With morning’s light, the result was shocking: all aluminum parts on the KTM were gone, vanished. All that remained lay in a pile of black and gray ash.


Above: One roasted KTM… pikipiki choma kabisa

The fire gave the trip a definitive end point. So, at first light we packed up our gear, had breakfast, bid everyone farewell and hit the road. This time around, without any punctures, the drive only took 9 hours. Plenty of time to plan the next trip…
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I used to have a link to my African rides in my signature line, but every time I check it doesn't work. So, if you want to see Kilimanjaro, the Kilombero Valley, a bunch of short trips around Dar and another long one to Mozambique: go to my profile.
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Old 03-04-2011, 12:41 PM   #9
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great story, and fantastic storytelling!

I love the photo collages and the short videos to bring it all to life.
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Old 03-04-2011, 03:24 PM   #10
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Love the way you laid out your pics.
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Old 03-06-2011, 01:11 PM   #11
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what a good ride

pity about Lucky's bike and krispy kaya.
wheerez your six-fiddy?
J in Jozi
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