Half way down - uppers and downers

                               05/04/2011 KISUMU TO SHELUI, TANZANIA (Hannah)



                               - Distance cycled: 855km

                               - Cycling days: 10

                               - Rest days: 2

                               - Average distance per cycling day: 85.5km



                          We left Kisumu with 6 months down, 6 months to go. The road had

                          so far led us through Europe’s country lanes and fruitful autumn

                          orchards, down the overcrowded and filthy banks of the Nile in

                          Egypt; we’d been humble by the Sudanese hospitality and angered

                          by the Ethiopian stupidity; we’d climbed relentless and

                          unforgiving mountains, crossed the driest of deserts, and

                          swerved dangerously out of the path of nonchalantly speeding

                          buses and trucks. We’d washed too seldom and when we did, it was

                          in the strangest of places: from a tap at a French petrol

                          station, in the crocodile-infested Nile, from a bucket crouching

                          over a shithole from which cockroaches wouldn’t stop emerging.

                          Our shorts, worn day in, day out, had been reduced to shreds. We had considerably more hair. Reza had sported 4 different styles of facial hair, liberated at last from the grips of British conformity. We’d witnessed poverty at atrocious levels, and felt embarrassed that it is the same, unfair world that we comfortable Westeners share. On a personal level, we’d been pushed to our very limits and explored the deeper, sometimes darker side of our human nature. We had proven to ourselves that our strongest weapon in achieving what we want is mental: desire, ambition, perseverance, resilience, faith.


When we left Kisumu, it was with all of this intensity now electrifying our minds. It may have been for this reason that the next leg of the journey felt, at times, unconformingly dull. Or perhaps it was just a mid-trip lull, like the perturbing male mid-life crisis. Or simply because we had chosen our route to Malawi on practical grounds, rather than out of adventurousness.


Two weeks off the bikes had left us feeling rusty and stiff. At our first lunch break we fell asleep, arms and heads flung over the table and strings of drool escaping our flaccid mouths. We’d lost our Michelin map and had replaced it with a rather useless supermarket-bought Kenyan one, and have been surprised repeatedly by the unexpected on our route. Thus we were unprepared for the hills encircling Lake Victoria, once we’d escaped the bowl in which Kisumu lies. We gave up after a miserable 50km on that first day. Over the next two days though, we perked up and comfortably reached the 24/7 Tanzanian border crossing with daylight to spare and a little sad goodbye nod to Kenya, where so much was yet to be explored.


We were pleasantly surprised, at first, by the quality of the Tanzanian roads and the consideration of their drivers: wide, smooth tarmac highways with a hard-shoulder-stroke-cycle-lane, where ample space was awarded to us by passing vehicles. There were a couple of features which did make our elected route interesting. We would cycle right along the edges of two game parks – the Serengeti and the Rungwa reserve – and looked forward to catching the wild animals outside of the (fenceless) park boundaries. The Serengeti indulged us with a glimpse of wildebeest and a few baboons but sadly nothing more exciting. We camped at its Southern border on some school grounds, which we found to be one of the easier camping options here: teachers are of the few in Tanzania who speak English, and they are usually fairly enthused at the idea of accommodating two travelers.


Days rolled (literally, ha ha) on and we soon approached Mwanza, capital of the Tanzanian North, hugged around the Southern shores of Lake Victoria. We would have two rest days there, so we were motivated enough on the last cycling day to squeeze 130km out of the hilly terrain, arriving in the city at night, tired but pleased. It was a satisfying rest where we, in an uncharacteristically organized fashion, performed all the required chores of clothes washing and bike maintenance as well as leaving time to send the first postcards of the trip.


We carried on South and into the well-rehearsed routine: alarm at 6, snoozed till 7, a sluggish packing of the tent and equipment, the road again. Cycle till our first carb break, and again until lunch. Back on the saddle, a further two fuel breaks, find a camping spot, set up camp, cook, eat, sleep. And start again... We had made the mistake of becoming blasé. But the kilometers were ticking by, and we focused on Malawi, which we’d targeted as our country of fun, and where my sister Megan would join us for 10 days.


We privileged the tactic of school ground camping: usually located just out of town, with surrounding fields and trees, a night guard, it was a hassle-free setting for us (that is, if you can ignore the crowd of staring youngsters as you set up for the night). Staying with families always ends up an expensive, albeit charming, venture. Even the more comfortable families have compassionately understandable requests, and it’s easy to see why a hosted Westener is considered an opportunity for life-improvement that cannot be passed by. We’ve received countless pleas for sponsorship to send children to secondary school (which isn’t free), or even for further adult education. We can only grant the more modest wishes (we’re sending 2 footballs to one of the schools), and even then, it’s impossible to see them all through.


The rain we experienced in Tanzania probably didn’t do much to lighten our outlook. I’d previously been to India during the Monsoon, was left unimpressed by the occasional scattering of rain I’d witnessed, and had imagined African rainy season would be the same. I was wrong. It rained most days and it rained heavily, with thunder and lightening cutting across the sky. Our lightweight tent doesn’t like this much water, and we spent most days in soggy clothes and most nights in soggy sleeping bags. Our waterproof panniers occasionally rebelled also and punished us by pooling water within, an unwelcome surprise. When the sun shined though, it was hot, bright, and caressed the land with its appeasing hand. An adventure wouldn't be worthy of the name if it was always easy and fun.


We pursued until we reached the town of Shelui. Set in the middle of a vast marsh, we had difficulty finding adequate grounds to set up camp. Our one attempt had left us ankle deep in the stickiest mud we had ever experienced. Our wheels became jammed by the mud wedged under the mudguard and we were caught by a group of amused locals in our efforts to release them. One, soon to be well known to us as Elias, took pity and escorted us to his homestead where we could sleep without sinking. The next morning, thanks exchanged, we headed back to the road.


Then something bad happened.

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