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Pedaling through mud on a track through Tanzania


The sleepy town of Ujiji sits on Lake Tanganyika and is a little place with a comfortable fishing industry. However, in 1871 it was the largest village in the region and was hosting a despondent Dr David Livingstone who’d been traipsing around Africa for seven years by that point. Presumed dead in Europe, his funds had dried up, his beard grown grey, his health poor after repeated ravaging bouts of malaria and dysentery. In desperation he had thrown himself on the mercy of Arab slavers whose occupation in Africa was the very trade that Livingston had campaigned for years to end. Henry Morton Stanley arrived (after a twelve month march from Zanzibar) with his huge retinue of soldiers, flag bearers, camp attendants and guides. The resultant meeting and Stanley’s pithy address has since been immortalised.

Stanley later wrote: “I would have run to him, only I was a coward in the presence of such a mob, – would have embraced him, only, he being an Englishman, I did not know how he would receive me; so I did what cowardice and false pride suggested was the best thing, – walked deliberately to him, took off my hat, and said, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’”

I stood on the spot of this meeting under a grand old mango tree and next to a stone memorial to Livingstone. As hard as I tried, I simply couldn’t imagine the state of utter desperation that Livingstone must have been in. The length and hardship of his travels in an unmapped and often hostile land put into perspective my own ramblings, largely along a smooth ribbon of tarmac through lands that are not only mapped but satellite imaged and dotted with telecom pylons.

From Ujiji an immaculate new road swept East to a ramshackle little town called Uvinza and then abruptly became mud. A shopkeeper warned me that the 130 miles between here and the next town – Mpanda – was inhabited by lions. So, it was with a little unease that I put up my tent in the bush that night, a little distance from the rutted mud path I’d be following for the next 400 miles.

The track bounced and jolted me through dense bush with very few people and only one or two vehicles a day. Sometimes but seldom did I come across little clusters of sub-basic grass huts. When I did, as often as not, the inhabitants would scatter at the sight of me. The weather was hot and humid. Little wind made it below tree level and the occasional streams where I washed and gathered water were usually only toe-deep and very murky.

Whenever I stopped for rest I was swarmed by flying ants that targeted my ears, eyes and nostrils. They would hurl themselves at me and get pathetically trapped in body hair and simply wriggle until either they died of exhaustion or I removed them. I soon learned to put a couple of bits of tissue in my nostrils, wear earphones and squint my eyes. The biggest challenge was ignoring their constant buzzing and wriggling about in hair on my legs, chest, neck and face.

Soon acclimatising to the slow pace, I contented myself with steady progress and relished the times when the track crested a rise and I could stand in a cooling breeze and gaze over the treetops. The verdant green carpet stretched away in all directions to the steam-obscured horizon. The distances and isolation of this region can be quite intimidating and I was glad that I’d arrived before the approaching rain season when the whole area becomes largely impassable.

Thankfully, I never did see or hear any trace of lions but I spotted a couple of antelope that darted back into the vegetation before I could identify them. There were often choruses of unnerving animal noises after dark; strange shrieks and coughs accompanied by a cacophony of birdcalls. When camping one evening, I heard a rustle and found myself suddenly in a staring competition with a black backed jackal stood, fearfully rooted to the spot, ten meters away. We both remained absolutely still for a minute before I flinched aggressively in his direction and sent him scarpering.

Due to poor planning and slower progress than expected, I had begun rationing my food when I stumbled unexpectedly into the village of Nkondwe. A small group of huts inhabited by alcoholic men and long-suffering women. It was mid-morning when I arrived but already the men were all deep in their cups, or perhaps they’d never managed to crawl out of them in the course of the night. Empty plastic konyagi (a gin-like spirit) sachets were strewn liberally across the dust.

I’d been plagued by numerous punctures during the previous couple of days and had run out of patches so I paid one of the inebriates to patch a tube with rubber and superglue. A crowd of 200 – the whole village – pressed closely around to gape at me while the man fumbled with his tools and twice glued his fingers together. His equally incapacitated associate, in a moment of astonishing insight, noticed I was a little uncomfortable with the booze-breathed huddle edging ever closer. He plucked a fistful of straws out of the hut’s thatched roof and lit one end. Using this fast burning baton, he forced the lollygaggers back but to little avail as they immediately returned and the thatch was already thinning and patchy.

I was relieved to escape this strange village (which is not untypical of remote Tanzanian villages) laden with several packets of biscuits and a large bag of rice. These bolsters to my supplies got me to Mpanda where I could buy actual fruit and veg to go with my rice meals.

The next obstacle was Katavi National Park which has no gate or guard so I rode on in. A swampy pool in a river near the entrance played host to around fifty wallowing hippopotami. Their pinkish-grey backs lounged above the waterline and I watched enraptured as a couple of males fought a seemingly slow and restrained battle. They would disappear underwater for minutes at a time before surfacing to try and bite at each other’s widely gaping jaw. They made little noise and after fifteen minutes I left them to it only to stumble immediately upon a herd of twelve giraffe. I gazed at them and they stared at me, still chewing. They cantered away in their somehow gracefully knock-kneed fashion when I remounted my bike.

The road through the park is about thirty miles and I covered twenty of those in a ceaseless stressful sprint as a swarm of tsetse flies found me and laid about me. These bloodsuckers are something akin to a horsefly at the end of a long, intensive course of steroids. With their long, serrated proboscis, they can deliver a painful bite even through denim and they carry sleeping sickness which kills over a quarter of a million humans yearly.

So, it was a swarm of perhaps sixty of these attending me that I hurtled along the corrugated track, my mind taken off the threat of big cat predators. Most of my escort seemed content to sit on my saddle bags and wait their turn to fly forward and give me an affectionate little nip. If I stopped cycling they would all leave their perches simultaneously and attack.

In this state of distress I was pulled over by park rangers who informed me bicycles weren’t allowed due mostly to the danger of lion and buffalo. They drove me back to the entrance and I hitched a ride across the park on the back of a flatbed truck.

Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.

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