bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

A near-miss, and jungle cycling

05/04/2011 SHELUI TO MBEYA, TANZANIA (Reza)

- Distance cycled:684km
- Cycling days: 9
- Rest days: 5
- Average distance per cycling day: 76km
- Top altitude: 2961m

The rain continues to tap down on our already wet
clothes and bikes. Although 8:30am, the thick dark
clouds and persistent rainfall shields the sunrays
and visibility remains poor. We cycle in silence,
in single file through the mud from Elias’ house and
onto the tarmac road, Elias leading the way and me
at the rear. Today is day 5 on the road from Mwanza
and over 400km without a rest; the tiredness is
starting to show with our slow ascent over the
climbing hills. In a moment like any other, I look
down briefly and when my eyes return to the road in
front, I see that Hannah has braked and moved to the
rough side of the road away from traffic. I am still
travelling forwards, relatively slowly, but am unable
to brake in time and so swerve in order to avoid her.
I learn only minutes later that she and Elias had
stopped away from the roadside in order to avoid the
oncoming truck which was overtaking at speed on the
wrong side of the road. I have seen this all too late
and as my front wheel rotates to the right to avoid Hannah’s bike, it is clipped by the truck and sucked under its 4.5 feet wheels. I must admit that the single second that this event lasts, to me seems like minutes slowed down like of an action scene in a movie. The memory remains so vivid in my mind that without much difficulty, I can still feel the spray of rain from the wheels across my face and recall the 5 sets of wheels pass closely by as my bike is ripped away from under me, my head turning as I watch the truck race off down the hill. I remain upright and travelling in a forward motion, without stumbling, I find myself almost jogging slowly towards the roadside and before long I come to a standstill in the mud. Everything is quiet. Everything still in slow motion. With my body still facing forward, I look back at the wreckage and the first thing that strikes me is the potential severity of the incident. Everything is so quiet. I take a few steps further into the mud and sit down. My heart pounds and my breathing becomes laboured as I struggle to remove my raincoat. As I stare blankly at the river of mud passing in front of me, I hear screaming, distant cries that I can just about make out followed by sobbing. As my senses begin to return, the crying gets louder and I notice a hand on my shoulder. It is Elias, his solemn, humble face looking down at me as I sink further into the wet earth beneath. I begin to slowly return from the void that had swallowed me, I start to process the events that occurred and I start to cry. Minutes pass and I realize that I must regain composure. Hannah has already removed the torn front pannier and its contents from the road and my bike with its twisted wheel sits miserably in the mud. Hannah and I don’t speak; we pass each other by for almost an hour before the first words are spoken. We both feel the magnitude and potential of what has happened and words are unnecessary for the time being. Three passers by stop and help us with our damaged equipment, bending the wheel back into a relatively true shape by wedging it between two trees, cleaning the mud from the bikes, smiling sympathetically and trying to raise our broken spirits. In a dream like state following the surge of adrenaline that pulsed through my veins, I realize that the angels that walk among us have once again crossed our path, exactly when we need it most. Back at Elias’ house, emotions continue to run wild and I feel the need to escape from the inquisitive stares and attempts to communicate from the children and neighbours, oblivious to the events of the morning. I take Hannah’s bike and cycle 5km to the nearest village and order a beer. The beer is not enough to quench my thirst for escapism and so I turn to the local brandy. Back near the house, I sit in a field still clutching at the half full bottle and take progressively bigger gulps. Dazed and confused, I don’t realise that the drizzle of rain has now become a downpour until thunder roars and awakens me. Its already dark as I return to the house, soaked to the bone. With no electricity and a leaking roof, I sit in silence and listen to the rain crash down on the corrugated metal roof. I feel cold, wet and broken. That night I sleep poorly and the morning that followed saw my first hangover of the trip as I examine my bike for the first time since the accident. The guys at the roadside and later Hannah’s persistent attempts at further truing the front wheel have left it usable but still somewhat bent. In order to cycle on it we have to release the front brakes altogether and so travel 90km to the next major town, Singida, with my heart in my mouth. A crooked front wheel, no front brake and a partially working back brake; this is no time to be complacent. We take refuge in Singida for 4 days, gathering our thoughts and attempting further repairs our equipment which results in an order for a new front wheel and brake cables. A few phone calls home to our families and hearing loved ones on the other end of the line proves to be a major factor in regaining some confidence and renewed excitement for whatever lays ahead. As a token of thanks, we decide to buy Elias a small solar panel and relevant kit (batteries, lights, sockets and switches) and for the second time in my life, I have provided electricity to a home where there previously was none.

From Singida, we decide that we should move away from the luxury of a tarmac road, exchanging it for the relative safety of a rough road with its lack of traffic. A further bonus is that it will afford us to cycle along side a game reserve and visit some of the villages off the beaten track. The rough road starts off remarkably smooth towards the town of Itigi and being able to cycle side by side lifted our spirits and put the events of the last week firmly behind us. The countryside here is lush and soon develops into wild virgin jungle. The road alternates between joyous firm smooth soil to horrible deep mud and so occasionally slows our progression, but we welcome the challenge and are excited by cycling on such a terrain, surrounded by the tropical vegetation and new sounds of the animals that inhabit it. The days that follow were enchanting and camping in the wild was thrilling. One late afternoon whilst we are speeding through some of the better kept tracks in an attempt to reach a small village about 10km away, we are stopped by a local lone motorcycle rider who has a puncture. Knowing that if we stop to help, we will probably not arrive to our destination, we take the decision that it is better to help – this lone rider is equally unable to reach his destination should we abandon him. So we stop and rush through his repairs and see him off some 40 minutes later. We arrive at our destination in the late evening and know that finding a suitable place to camp will now be difficult. But karma has other plans for us as we unexpectedly meet a young man named Ramadan, a park ranger, who hosts us in his humble abode on the corner of the game reserve. Had we not helped the lone rider, we would have never met Ramadan and we would have slept in wet sleeping bags that night. But it is all go knowing our tight time frame to get to Lilongwe (Malawi) in order to meet Megan, Hannah’s sister, we speed off the following morning and persist through the mud and sand. By late lunch, we arrive at the very small town of Rungwa and are quickly befriended by a young man called Carlos who is more than a little intoxicated on the local beer and insists that my name is ‘Keiser’. His jubilant mood helps us to relax the remainder of the day as did a drop of the local brandy. We decide to stay in a guest house that night which has the added bonus of a cold bucket shower, and spend the evening sitting in front of our quarters with our new friend, listening to African tunes and finishing off the rest of the brandy. That night, long after we have gone to bed, we are awoken by loud repetitive moans. I must admit, I had first thought them sexual in nature and when I turned and sniggered childishly to Hannah; she has thought them more the screams of childbirth and so we decide to investigate. We are both mistaken. Tragically, a fight has broken out between two women and one has slashed the face of the other with a razor blade, who was now lying in a pool of blood on the hard concrete floor. There is no hospital for miles but we had luckily put together a comprehensive medical kit and so procede to clean and suture the 10cm laceration. In the morning, we examine our handy work and are back on the road.

Our Kenyan-bought map fails us again that night as its publication proved to outdate the village of Kipenbawe, where we have planned to stay that evening. After an 80km cycle through a particularly remote section of the road, we arrive to find a ghost town. A set of old colonial houses that have long been abandoned now sit in an area swamped by long grass with the once removed jungle reclaiming the land. As dusk sets in, this lost town has an eerie feel to it and leaves us with a predicament. We either spend the night here with no food and face our fears of camping within the game reserve or we attempt to cycle to the next village some 30km away. With light fading quickly we decide to try to beat the darkness and make a dash to the next settlement. Before long it is pitch black and our progress has been slower than we have hoped. Our bike lights emit a very modest beam and the once beautiful landscape narrowed in the darkness into a small and terrifying tunnel, complete with bats shrieking and strange rustling in the bushes. The mud thickens causing us to push our bikes slowly, occasionally making us loose balance and fall clumsily. Ahead, a storm is brewing which occasionally and momentarily lights up the sky with a flash of lightening, showing the contour of the canapé in the distance. There is nowhere to stop now. Exhausted from the long day, now amounting to 95km, we persevere through the darkness. Not having seen a vehicle all day, we are unhopeful of rescue and fear the worst. But once again, as has happened many times on this journey, angels appear in the form of a faceless group of individuals travelling in a Land Cruiser (4x4). Shocked to see us so deep in the jungle without an adequate source of transport or weapon, they stop and assist us. With our bikes strapped to the roof, they drive us to the next village and arrange a place for us to pitch our tent with the village chief. We are set to go to bed hungry when two young women bring us warm barbecued corn on the cob. Corn has never tasted so good. Somewhat revived, we sleep well and the following morning, we are back on the road. Twisting and turning, we climb the hills and persevere, now only a few days from Mbeya, where we will rest and complete our bike repairs. But there is one final obstacle to cross - a large mountain range. We have limited information regarding its peak but believe it to be around 2600m although we hope that the road won't take us so high. Some say that ignorance is bliss, but there is nothing blissful about climbing uphill for 2 consecutive days and not knowing when it would stop. The road becomes very rocky and we quickly tire after each rest stop. The road becomes progressively more convoluted as we approach the summit. We finally reach the top and are greeted with a road sign reading ‘Highest trunk road of the country, altitude 2961m’. It is a pleasant surprise indicating that the worst is over but also gives meaning to the difficulty we have experienced. Our passage down the other side is uncomfortable due to the large stones that make up the road but the great view of the city of Mbeya lit up in the fading light makes our hearts warm as we bump our way down to enjoy a well deserved few days off.

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