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When I cycle around Melbourne my biggest worry is car doors opening suddenly – today it's leopard attacks. I should probably stay away from the buffalo as well, as I am unlikely to outrun either of these dangerous beasts despite being on a brand-new Specialized mountain bike.
Welcome to day one of Intrepid Travel's cycling tour of northern Tanzania. By the end of the six-day odyssey I will have ridden my bike past a herd of wildebeest, cycled with a Maasai warrior and high-fived more kids than a politician up for re-election.
We are starting our bike trek in the car park of Arusha National Park, where our bikes are unloaded from the Intrepid Travel cycling support van and we cause a bit of a fuss with national park staff – we are the first group with permission to tackle the national park on bikes – who are snapping photos as we do a test run around the entrance.
Tanzania by bicycle
Paul Chai goes on an epic tour of Tanzania on two wheels. Video: Intrepid Travel
After a quick safety check, we set off into the park and within minutes we have reached an open plain teeming with wildlife. Zebras watch us suspiciously, wildebeest barely regard us at all, while a pair of warthogs trot officiously across the grassland as if late for some important date.
This is a plein-air safari with nothing between you and the wildlife and it's exhilarating seeing African wildlife outside the confines of a safari truck. We inquire about our safety – none of us have been on safari with only a water bottle and two wheels to protect us – but our guide, Justaz Molel, assures us there are no lions in this national park. As for the leopards and buffalo, I'll take them over Australian drivers any day.
The roads are rough-hewn red dirt with some surprising obstacles – a troop of baboons leaps from the bush right in front of us and then pauses, perhaps startled by all the Lycra. We cover a total of 112 kilometres with daily rides ranging from 14 to 24 kilometres.
Soon we are climbing hills, big ones that have me puffing and panting like a gazelle that has just avoided being a lion's lunch. The savannah switches to heavily wooded forest and after a few more hills I catch up to a group who have stopped for a rest. We make so much noise that three of the tree trunks start to move: it turns out there were giraffe grazing nearby in the forest and they now lope away from us into the safety of the trees. More hills see the group split into two: those who are good at hills and those who are not. I am firmly in the latter camp but what keeps me going is the simple description of gravity often attributed to Isaac Newton: "What goes up must come down."
As dusk starts to settle across the park we reach a well-earned downhill and bump over the tightly packed earth for kilometres, then enter a flatter stretch of road bathed in sunset. Kids break from a football game to run to the roadside and wave us on and Maasai farmers and their cattle provide the odd roadblock as they cross in front of us. As the sun disappears our support vehicle materialises and we climb in, tired but elated.
Back at our accommodation for the night – Mkuru Safari Camp, a simple, tented affair with bush showers – the longnecks of Kiliminjaro beer (motto: "If you can't climb it, drink it") go down well, then Justaz casually mentions that he was previously a guide on Africa's highest mountain and has climbed "Kili" 273 times. I worry I might be out of my league.
FOLLOW THE MAASAI
The previous night, we arrived at Mkuru Safari Camp in the dark with just iPhones to light our way to the tents, so the morning provides a big reveal. My tent sits on a verge overlooking an expanse of wilderness, all scrubby bush, thorny acacia trees and the odd cactus. Yesterday's hills are behind us, and the view reminds me of when I went on safari in Kenya, Tanzania's near neighbour. I already feel more connected to the land on this trip; I remember every inch of road that brought me here, my clothes are dusted in the red earth and I have had hours of travelling to take in the nuance of the landscape.
Frank Cheshire, Intrepid Travel's newly appointed cycling product manager, is with us on this trip. Cheshire is a mad keen cyclist who shoots up the harrowing hills like his bike has a motor (I checked, it doesn't), then he rides back down and climbs the same hill again … for fun. He says that it is this connection to the land that makes the cycling trips special for him. "Fundamentally, there are only so many places a safari vehicle can go," he says. "You'd be amazed at how much the world opens up when you trade in a truck for two wheels. Cycling allows us to skip the main roads in favour of beautiful hidden laneways, picturesque dirt roads and serene villages and towns."
Today's ride is pretty straightforward, the main obstacle being the thorny spikes of the acacia trees scattered on the ground, one of which pierced straight through the sole of my shoe and could easily have done the same to our tyres. The landscape is more arid now, and for the most part we are the only travellers on this curvy section of dirt road to Mto wa Mba, with only dust devils for company. I look down and realise I am making bike tracks over the goat tracks left by the Maasai.
Suddenly, a bright pink church appears and kids run to the side of the road hoping for high fives. We oblige, though on this rough surface we run the risk of high fiving the ground with our face if we let go of the handlebars for too long.
In the afternoon we are visiting a Maasai village but our guide, Isaac, surprises us by meeting early on the roadside where he hops onto one of the spare bikes and beckons us to follow him to his village. We fall in line behind our guide, his traditional red blanket billowing over his shoulder, and play a game of follow the Maasai along the sandy path to the Losirwa village, named after the biggest gazelle in Africa.
On a bike tour, transit is everything, arrival almost an afterthought but the Maasai make sure we remember this destination. We have come to the village as the men return from the plains with the cattle and both men and women perform a traditional dance to celebrate the homecoming – with some of our cyclists attempting to leap with the same prowess as the Maasai men. I demur, my calves are not happy walking, jumping might provoke a muscular revolt.
The village has also provided a barbecue for us, goat legs are speared into the ground hoof first in a circle around a charcoal pit. The gamey meat is washed down with a soup of herbs with some added iron as our hosts cheerfully add some fresh cow's blood to our mugs, a staple of the nomadic Maasai diet. Later, we help herd the cows into their pen for the night and join Isaac and the tribe for some campfire stories about Maasai life.
JUST ANOTHER HERD
In the morning we set off from our new base, the Twiga Lodge and Campsite in Mto wa Mbu, for Lake Manyara. One side of this huge lake, on the edge of the Rift Valley, is national park but we are cycling along the other side through common land. We get a rock-star welcome in the village and Justaz explains that we have been on Tanzanian TV because of our inaugural ride through Arusha National Park – and the national park's Facebook page is posting sightings of us as we wheel our way around the country.
Today's ride starts in a glade where monkeys hang from every tree before we emerge onto a grassy plain beside Lake Manyara. Flamingos are standing along the lake rim, along with Thomson's gazelles, and a conga line of wildebeest. I have cycled and I have "safaried" but putting the two together on this plain today feels like discovering peanut butter and honey for the first time. Initially you feel exposed but that turns into a feeling of freedom as we ignore tracks and just freewheel with the wild animals.
If nothing else, our bikes are a good talking point and some fisherman by the lake offer us freshly caught tilapia to feed the marabou storks – the undertakers of the bird world – that are lingering around in hope of some lunch. We toss them a few small fish and then cycle home across the plain.
In the afternoon we take a four-wheeled safari around the adjacent Lake Manyara National Park and finally spot some elusive lions, as well as hippos and a family of elephants.
That night we stay in African "igloos" at Panorama Safari Camp, which sits high on the Rift Valley escarpment, and watch the sun set over Lake Manyara from our clifftop perch.
It's an early start again, as we have our most challenging cycle yet, three kilometres of road with a 7 per cent incline. Seven used to be my favourite number, but no more, this is a tough climb that sees all of us struggle. Well, all except Frank, who looks like he is going on a Sunday cycle to the shops for a morning paper. But it is a team-building ride, too, and everyone arrives at the top of the hill to a cheer from fellow cyclists.
The downhill is long and sweet, save for a few horse-drawn carts, stray dogs and devil-may-care pedestrians. I arrive in Karatu, the village base for travellers heading to the famous Ngorongoro Crater, muscles screaming but a large smile planted on my face. As a traveller, I am much more likely to be found in the bar than on the seat of a bike but the intimacy of this wild cycling tour may have made me a convert. Besides, the beers taste better when you earn them.
We crash at out new digs at Octagon Lodge, for tomorrow we head into the crater, in four-wheel drives.
INTO THE CRATER
The Ngorongoro Crater is a huge volcanic caldera, that cradles a host of African wildlife in a sheltered basin surrounded by mountains on all sides. So protected are these animals that the crater is often referred to as a "zoo", but the animals are not protected from the realities of life in the African savannah.
We climb down into the crater floor through misty cloud where we can see the silhouettes of a trio of giraffes. These long-necked animals are only seen on the escarpment leading into the crater because the crater itself does not have enough trees for them. When we reach ground level we spy just some of the 250,000 animals that live here; we see a battered hyena recovering from a vicious fight, more gazelle, wildebeests, zebras, flamingo and buffalo. I spot my first-ever jackal and one of the four prides of lions that inhabits the area.
Then we see something that even impresses our seasoned safari guide. A rhinoceros is sitting in the grass and through our binoculars we see a hyena that appears to making its way towards the rhino, one of the most aggressive beasts on the plain. Not only does the brave (or crazy) hyena head for the rhino, it starts nipping at its flank, a David-and-Goliath battle right before our eyes. When the rhino turns it has a large wound on its side, and this crazy hyena clearly fancies its chances but the rhino finally rouses itself and shakes the wild dog off like it is swatting a pesky fly. We lunch around a waterhole that is full of skulking hippos, but we stay inside our car because local kites are known to swoop down and steal sandwiches here.
As we leave the crater, I realise that this may be a safari where the animals actually come second to the scenery. The beauty of being inside the crater with mountainous walls on all sides – and the views over the salt lake at the crater's heart as we climb out – are every bit as exciting as the live Animal Planet show we got on the safari itself.
We have one more bike trip ahead of us. Riding back to our accommodation at Octagon, we take off as a single, Lycra-clad pack for the last time.
Back in Karatu we head into town for a sunset drink to celebrate our tour. "So much of Eastern Africa has traditionally been enjoyed through the comfort of a safari window," says Frank Cheshire. "What we wanted to offer travellers with the cycling tours was an opportunity to break down those barriers and truly experiences the culture, scenery and landscapes of Tanzania."
Sitting at our roadside plastic table in Karatu, Kiliminjaro in hand, I'd say we did just that, to paraphrase George Orwell in Animal Farm, "two wheels good, four wheels bad".
PRACTICE ON SOME HILLS
I am a commuter cyclist so I know my way around a bike, but Melbourne is pretty flat and Tanzania's Rift Valley is not. Find some time to get used to climbing.
TAKE SOME PADDING
In additional to my usual padded shorts, I invested in a gel seat that I threw into my travel pack. If bums could talk mine would have said, "thank you".
On a hot tip from a keen cyclist mate I invested in some Body Glide, an anti-chafe cream applied to, er, sensitive areas and it was money well spent. I was saddle sore by the end of the trip, so can only imagine if I had not used this amazing invention.
Northern Tanzania is not hot year around, but you always need to make sure you keep up the fluids with a few hours of cycling each day.
MORE EXTREME CYCLING TOURS
Intrepid launched a new range of cycling adventures in September with bike tours to some interesting places. The Real Cycling Adventures range offers cultural cycling tours through Asia, Africa and the Carribbean. Here are five new offerings.
Starting in Yangon, cyclists head north to the ancient city of Bagan and on to Mount Popa, home to the ancestral spirits of the land.
Ride from Negombo to Colombo along coastline, national parks and past some of the country's most beautiful beaches.
Join the vintage vehicles on the streets of Havana, then cycle through the tobacco plantations of Vinales and head to Che Guevara's former headquarters at the Cueva de los Portales.
From Marrakesh travel through the centre of the country to Tangier, then on to Chefchaouen, Fes and into the Atlas mountains before facing the searing hot Sahara on two wheels.
Eat, pray, cycle across India's spiritual south on this two-week tour that takes in the west coast of India, the forests of the Western Ghats and the sand of the Arabian Sea.
The actual Intrepid tour is called "Cycle Tanzania", and will be longer than this sample tour. Visitors will cycle for 13 days, spending six nights camping, three nights in hotels and three nights in guesthouses. Most meals are included (12 breakfasts, 11 lunches, 10 dinners). The tour will have a physical rating of 4/5 stars. Prices start from $3795 and departures will begin in 2017.
Mkuru Training Camp is a training camp and is not regular accommodation, but is used by Intrepid Travel as part of the cycling tour; mkurutrainingcamp.org
The Panorama Safari Camp is set on the edge of a huge cliff overlooking the Lake Manyara National Park. It offers "African Igloos", beehive-shaped bungalows with a shared bathroom, and also offers campsites, double igloos from $US25 a night; panoramasafaricamp.com
Octagon Lodge makes a great base from which to explore the Ngorongoro Crater. A small private lodge, it offers large rooms with en suite as well as a pool, bar area and excellent buffet meals. Doubles from $US150 a night; octagonlodge.com
Paul Chai travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.