Disaster! I just can’t catch a break. I can’t seem to find an avocado anywhere. First world problems in Africa. I’ve been eating at least two a day for a while now and I need my fix. They aren’t like the miniscule fist size green fruits we get at home, these are sometimes the size of a small cantaloupe melon and the flesh inside is like cream. Who needs butter when you can spread avocado on your mandazi’s. A mandazi is a staple of this region, I’ve been warned that they will make me fat, which is perfect. That’s not stopping me eating a good ten a day. They are a savoury flour fritter. They vary in quality and, if left too long turn a tad rubbery, but a high grade mandazi is fluffy on the inside like a doughnut with a crispy outer shell.
I am a minor celebrity, women blush or giggle as I pass, though that could be on account of the cycling attire I shamelessly sport. Children cheer and shout excitedly and men ask me where I am going or give me the thumbs up. I often find myself in a race, the local guys see me coming and they go hell bent for leather racing the mzungu. With the lack of gearing on their bikes their legs spin at an eye watering pace, friends cheer them on and laugh, I spot them looking back in earnest every few seconds as we engage in this unspoken duel. Casual as I may I greet them good morning with a sympathetic smile as if to say, ‘oh we were racing?’ It’s not until I’m past and clear out of ear shot that I gasp for breath and hold the stitch in my side.
During the school run or the morning hustle of people moving to and fro, occasionally I become part of a small peloton with people breaking off left and right when they reach their destination. It’s nice to have company even for a short while. When I stop for my 9am bottle of coca cola I turn to leave the shop to find a hoard of curious children; I then awkwardly have to sit and rest as I take a minute with thirty pairs of eyes staring at me.
Three days out in Tanzania and I find myself waking at a rest camp on the edge of the Katavi National Park. I am drawn from my slumber in the pre-dawn light by the huffs and deep grunts of hippopotamus for not ten metres from the shack I am in, is a river teeming with these marvellous relations of the humble pig. I counted forty, their tracks visible in the soft ground around my cabin from where they have left the safety of the water during the night. In the dry season this small stretch of river is bursting with ten times this morning’s number. Amongst the deep bellows of the hippo I hear the call of a lion, and just to make sure I’m not imagining it, a second call rings out.
The evening before, when I arrived, the lady refused to allow me to camp, claiming that there are far too many lion. She told a tall story about three lions attacking a hippo that morning. I thought she was just playing me to force my hand into renting a room, as I hear the lions roar for the second time I begin to come round to her point of view and it could explain the deceased hippo further down stream. As I leave she shouts one last warning “don’t cycle in the national park.”
Some cyclists, like Jacob who had been cycling for two years when I met him, claim EIC (every inch counts) or EFIC (I will let you figure that one out). Me I live by EBC (every breath counts). I had caught a bus the following day to carry me through the Katavi National Park, a mecca for wildlife and particularly abundant are lions. I’m sure I would have been fine but I don’t know enough about the area or the animals to confidently pedal through the territory. So when I hear them just a roar’s distance from the road I am content with my decision to uphold EBC. I have little sympathy for rogue foreigners who get themselves into a pickle or killed owing to nothing but their ignorance or disregard for common sense. I’ve said from the beginning that if an area is too dangerous to cycle I will use other means of transport, or that if I’m having a great time somewhere or wish to go off plan I will hitch a ride to catch up as I have a flight to catch in little over a month.
As I continue north, paralleling Lake Tanganyika but never actually glimpsing it, things get more rural. Settlements become more sporadic, I cycle for hours at a time seeing no man nor vehicle. The biggest hint that I may be in more rural areas is that gone is the smooth tar; I am in the realms of dirt roads. In stretches they can be as smooth if not smoother than their tar counter parts, but these stretches are an oasis on an otherwise perilsome surface. Bone rattling and pannier breaking, my two rear panniers are now supported by a bungee cord as their cross beam has failed and the front rack is more cable tie than metal as it has sheared at the “strong” point.
Rains and dirt roads do not go hand in hand, the surface becomes slick and my bike ungainly. The camber of the road and the ruts formed by the tracks of vehicles causes my bikes to slither, I move forward like a sidewinder as my rear wheel tries to take the lead. I manage to stay upright albeit wide eyed and tense; splash, I go head first into a foot deep well formed in the tyre tracks; squelch I klinsmann headlong into thick mud. It’s going to be a long few days.
I feel like a mountain biker rather than a tar tourer as I pull in to rest stops. Mud is caped up the length of my body, matted in my beard with a crust forming on my arms and legs. It has its advantages; it’s natures sun cream which is ideal as I’ve run out. I am sure some mug in Chelsea would pay a good price for a facial in this rich clay soil. Though I suspect it would come in a chic white pot and be applied by a softly spoken, bland but relatively attractive woman rather than flicked in your eyes off my tyre.
It might be my dishevelled appearance, like some sort of swamp monster, but here in the sticks toddlers burst into tears and run for cover behind a door or mothers skirt. On the roads children are collecting flying ants, as I slip and slide towards them, they pause like the ground squirrels, think for a moment then flee dropping what ever they are holding be it nut or bowl and dash into the bush. The only evidence that they were there is perhaps a shoe lost in flight. I’ve become notorious.