Cycling around Kilimanjaro: a bike trip through an African Paradise
Prior to COVID, the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro were getting ever busier. More and more people were marching to the summit of Africa’s highest mountain. Some routes were even, in peak season, getting choked with crowds. For this reason, several companies took a step back and reassessed their roster; to try to offer a different perspective on the Roof of Africa. In particular, companies such as Summit Expeditions and Nomadic Experiences (SENE) and Ahsante Tours added cycling around Kilimanjaro to their roster.
The variety of these cycling trips varies widely. Indeed, some itineraries include tours to Tanga on the coast. While others take you down to Tanzania’s legislative capital of Dodoma. Still others offered to take you to the parks of the Northern Circuit. (Note I said ‘to the parks’, not ‘around the parks’. Once you’ve reached the park gates, you swap two wheels for four to enjoy a game drive.)
Our favourite route, however, is the one that takes in Kilimanjaro’s little-visited northern side. For those interested in the culture of the people who call the mountain their home this trip has no equal.
For on this side of the mountain at least, the culture remains largely untouched by the trespasses of the foreigner.
Is the northern side of Kilimanjaro really untouched by tourism?
Untouched by tourism? No, we can’t claim that and we’re exaggerating a little. But unspoilt? Yes, definitely.
It’s the little things that make you realise 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 all the time in Arusha and Moshi. 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. It’s one that has so far been left pretty much untouched by outsiders. Which is why I 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 recipient of your largesse will 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. When that day comes, 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.
Cycling around Kilimanjaro is not easy
Alongside the above request we must also add a word of warning. Cycling round Kilimanjaro 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, may struggle. Especially if they carry a paunch, and their normal idea of an exercise regime is to walk the dog for an hour a day round the gentle hills of Sussex. If this sounds like you, you may find yourself wobbling in the wake of the rest of the team. Because I know I did.
If that does sound like you, you can always extend the expedition by a day or two. This will 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.
How long does it take?
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.
Itinerary for travelling around Kilimanjaro by bike
Day 1 of cycling around Kilimanjaro: the eastern side
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. It’s a climb that cyclists have dubbed, not inaccurately, Heartbreak Hill.
It’s a relentless schlep, guaranteed to make you sweat and swear. Uniformed schoolchildren shout cheerful insults as you pass; insults that are addressed to you, but 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. Because the cycling on subsequent days is more straightforward, the gradients less severe and the scenery more diverting too.
Day 2: the northern side
Soon you’ll approach the north-eastern corner of the mountain and the start of Kilimanjaro’s Rongai Route. You’ll pass through patches of virgin forest. Turaco shout encouragement from the trees, while huge blue butterflies flit between the members your convoy. Occasionally, colobus monkeys may stop eating to peer through the branches at this strange and colourful pedalling parade.
As you move around the northern side, you 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. So your fellow road-users will, on the whole, be pedestrians travelling to and from the local markets. Them, and 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. Here 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. You’ll find your tyres squelching through the dung of buffalo and elephant that cross the road here. 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. Indeed, 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.
Day 3: the western side
By the time you reach the mountain’s western side, you’ll see that several huge farms have divided up the slopes of Kili. These include Mountainside Farm, where eland and antelope can still be seen roaming. (You can read about the experiences of 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. You just have to cycle along the road via Moshi and all the way to Marangu. It’s 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. As such, they are happy to hang up their helmets and give their aching limbs some time off.