As the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro get ever busier and more and more people march to the summit of Africa’s highest mountain, the desire to get a different perspective on the mountain – to step away from the hordes and take a less crowded path – grows ever stronger. Recognising this, several of the more creative trekking agencies – companies such as Summit Expeditions and Nomadic Experiences (SENE) and Ahsante Tours – have now added cycling trips to their roster. The variety of these cycling trips varies widely and may include itineraries to Tanga on the coast, down to the legislative capital of Dodoma and even to the parks of the Northern Circuit, where you swap two wheels for four to enjoy a game drive.
For us, however, the best route is currently that which takes in Kilimanjaro’s little-visited northern side. For those interested in the culture of the people who call the mountain their home – a culture that, on this side of the mountain, remains largely untouched by the trespasses of the tourist – this trip has no equal.
It’s in the little things that you notice just how little the outside world has infiltrated into this sunny corner of Africa. For example, the children here ask not for ‘chocolate’, ‘school pen’ or ‘money’ – requests that you’ll hear pretty much everywhere else in Northern Tanzania; instead, the kids here just want the chance to say ‘Jambo’ to the sweating middle-aged mzungu wobbling past on his bike. It’s very lovely and very, very refreshing.
Such an unexpected reception emphasises the fact that you are now in a different sort of Tanzania, one that has so far been left pretty much untouched by outsiders. Which is why we need to make the following request: don’t spoil it. In particular, please do not give out gifts to locals you meet on the way. We know the children are cute and the locals look both friendly and, often, quite poor. But all it takes is one thoughtless act of ‘kindness’ by a visitor and suddenly that innocent interaction between tourist and local will be much harder to come by; for no matter how well-intentioned the hand-out, the local recipient of your largesse could for evermore look upon foreigners as a potential source of gifts. Inevitably, one day, the Maasai and Chagga of northern Kilimanjaro will come to view the tourist in the same light as people in most other parts of Tanzania, and friendly greetings will be replaced by requests for material goods, or simply hard cash. I recognise that. But let’s try not to accelerate that process.
Alongside the above request we must also add a word of warning: cycling round here can be tough. Admittedly, regular cyclists, the fit and the under-thirty may find it a breeze. Those, however, who have, ahem, lived a little, carry a paunch, and whose normal idea of an exercise regime is to walk the dog for an hour a day round the gentle hills of Sussex, may find themselves wobbling in the wake of the rest of the team. If that sounds like you, you can always extend the expedition by a day or two to allow yourself to cycle for shorter distances each day. After all, this is a trip that needs to be savoured, and the peace and stillness that can be experienced round Kili’s northern side is one that’s best enjoyed without the perpetual screaming of one’s calf muscles.
So how long does it take? Well, from our own experience of the Tour de Kili, we were able to pedal from Marangu, on the south-eastern side of the mountain, to Simba Farm, on Kili’s western flank, in two and a half days. That’s not going at a frenetic pace at all, and for more experienced cyclists that’s actually quite slow going. But it does give you plenty of time to take in the scenery and visit the markets on the way.
On such a trip you’ll quickly notice that each side of the mountain has its own character. On the eastern side, for example, the newly built road has made cycling much more straightforward but it also means that the traffic is greater. This is also, interestingly, the hardest side, particularly the long haul up to Useri – a climb that cyclists have dubbed, not inaccurately, Heartbreak Hill. It’s a relentless climb, guaranteed to make you sweat and swear while uniformed schoolchildren shout cheerful insults that are addressed to you, though in all honesty are intended more for the amusement of their classmates. If you have begun your trip in Marangu and this first day reduces you to tears, don’t despair: the cycling on subsequent days is more straightforward, the gradients less severe and what you see is more diverting too.
Approaching the north-eastern corner of the mountain, you’ll pass through patches of virgin forest, where turaco shout encouragement from the trees, huge blue butterflies flit between the members your convoy, and the occasional colobus monkey will stop eating for a second to peer through the branches at this strange and colourful pedalling parade. And by the time you move around the northern side, and leave the tarmac behind at Kamwanga, a tranquillity settles on the landscape that is just lovely. Few are the cars that drive along this stretch and your fellow road-users will, on the whole, be pedestrians travelling to and from the local markets, together with the occasional motorcycle hired to transport those travellers with heavier loads or further to go.
The lively village of Kigielli is a venue for one such market, where you can pick up a pair of Maasai sandals (the ones made out of old tyres) for about US$3-5. Thereafter, the scenery of neat, fertile farmland gives way to a dusty wilderness of acacia and savannah, where the tyres on your bike squelch through the dung of buffalo and elephant that occasionally cross the road. Maasai children sometimes appear out of the bushes at the side of the road, herding their precious cattle, but otherwise humanity seems a long way away.Further on, the village of Kitendeni signals some sort of return to civilisation and the next village, Lerangwa, is big enough to require its own school. Many of the cycle groups camp for the night in the school grounds, much to the amusement of the pupils who arrive for school at 7am the next day.
By the time you reach the mountain’s western side, the slopes of Kili have been divided up among several huge farms, including Mountainside Farm, where eland and antelope can still be seen roaming. (You can read about the experiences of the farmer, David Read, who established Mountainside, in his memoir Another Load of Bull.) Their neighbours are Simba Farm, where rooms and hospitality await.
From here, it’s another couple of hours down to the main Arusha-Moshi road and Boma N’gombe. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from completing an entire circumnavigation of Kili by cycling along the road via Moshi and all the way to Marangu – a distance of around 65km in total. But for many, the main highway between Arusha and Moshi is a poor substitute for what has gone before, and they are happy to hang up their helmets and give their aching limbs some time off.