Ah, the power of beer. Scott Allaway and I (Ben Brewerton) decided, after a few pints, to join the Scope cycle safari challenge across Tanzania – 300km in five days. Being motorbike racers in our spare time it was inevitable that the event would turn into a race between us and so it did.
This is our story. It has drama, pathos, pain and suffering but it is also a story of perseverance, determination and joy. And then after the toilets we went cycling.
Scotty and I arrive at Heathrow on time and have a few beers. It’s a night flight to Nairobi and we sleep well on the plane. Apart from some healthy turbulence nothing remarkable happens. Little did we know that the week ahead would be hit by a considerable amount of unhealthy turbulence.
Nairobi Airport and it’s hot. There are four buses waiting to transport us to the first campsite. It’s a long journey and we arrive about 4pm. En route we stop for lunch in a clearing by the roadside – there’s some awkward to-ing and fro-ing as people disappear into the bushes for a “comfort break”. However it wouldn’t be long before such niceties were forgotten.
As we approach the Kenya/Tanzania border we are given some forms to fill out. On arrival at the Kenyan border customs we fill out some more forms while trying to avoid a shouty horde of Masai women trying to sell us various bits of useless stuff. The trick is to avoid holding any of the merchandise – they just refuse to take it back and you end up having to pay their price. On the return journey we are much more experienced (or simply confused after a week of cycling) and everybody haggles for the best prices.
The Tanzanian customs and border is ten yards further up the road. We all disembark and fill out more forms. The process is to be repeated in reverse nine days later.
After arriving at the campsite between Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro we are allocated our bikes and tents. And then it’s an early night for most as we’ve just been told we will be up at 6.00am every morning…
We’ve been warned that the day starts with a 25km hill climb and we set off with some trepidation. However the pace is slow and Scott and I begin to wonder whether it’s going to be a bit of a boring doddle. The leader explains that we’re lucky that there’s cloud cover because in the heat the hill is a killer. We don’t believe him until the sun comes out – argh, shit that’s hot. The slow pace gets slower, I start seeing visions of a cold beer at the top of the hill. The first water stop is gratefully received.
On a downhill section Scott has a rear blow out (no, the tyre) and creates near-panic as he’s at the front and we’re all right on his tail. Bikes go in every direction as he puts his hand up and pulls into the pits, just like racing really. Maybe the puncture was a warning from the gods but more of that later.
Most of the first day is spent on-road with a brief off-road section through a coffee plantation (where we stop for lunch) to avoid Arusha town centre. The thing that struck me most were the young kids running down to the roadside from their villages to clap and wave and shout “Jambo!” at the crazy Westerners. In Tanzania, transport is a status symbol – once you can afford a car you wouldn’t be seen dead on a bike again. They clearly think that we are quite insane. They may have a point. More than anything else the children ask for pens or pencils. They all look fit, healthy and happy – a distinct contrast to us cyclists.
The Scopies create a fast group for the afternoon and Scott and I head off with about ten others for a mad dash to the campsite. It doesn’t take us long and we get to the site about 3.30pm. Here we discover that there is a God after all – we’re at a proper campsite, the Mesarani Snake Camp, where there is a bar with cold beer and toilets with a flush.
We get very, very drunk indeed.
We awake with hangovers. At least, we think they’re hangovers.
Day 4 is off-road heaven. It was hot, fast, with great downhill sections.
The next campsite is just a clearing in the bush really. We play cards and drink beer ’til late. By now it’s clear that it wasn’t a hangover at all – I’m beginning to feel pretty ill. Scotty has already progressed to the next stage…
After breakfast the Doc announces that 10% of the group are unwell. Some are worse than others and Scott and I are generally ok compared to most. There are a few seriously ill people who have to remain in the bus for a day or two. By now the traditional morning greeting is: “Have you got the shits as well?” Scott and I focus on attaining a level of Karma known as FWC (Farting With Confidence). It’ll take some days to achieve this nirvana.
After three visits Scotty can’t face the toilets again and, as he has no choice on timing, decides he’d prefer to squat behind a bush. One poor soul does brave the toilets only to topple over. All we can see is a tent on its side with two legs sticking in the air tangled up in a pair of Y-fronts.
I avoid breakfast and have a change of eating tactics. From now on, breakfast is dried toast, lunch is a banana and a chocolate bar (avoiding the chicken and cheese sandwiches) and dinner will be the pasta and vegetables without the meat. We don’t plan to steer clear of the beer but as it happens we can’t face alcohol again until we arrive at the hotel on Day 6.
The day will be remembered for the punctures. Due to the late rains, the trails are covered in little thorns. Everyone starts getting punctures some as many as 10 in each tube. The mechanics are working overtime, anyone carrying their own repair kit and pump stops to help. We reach our first water stop at about 11am and it quickly becomes our lunch spot as we are stuck there for four hours repairing the punctures.
To avoid the punctures the route is changed and we have a 30km road journey to the campsite. I set off with the leaders but with a slowly deflating front tyre I can’t keep to their pace. The rest of the afternoon I seem to spend more time pumping tyres and mending punctures than cycling. I come across Scotty wobbling around with both tyres completely flat. We stop under a tree with a young Masai and his kids and a portable radio playing Radio Tanzania. I leave Scott to wait for the mechanics – he is there for two and a half hours and gets to meet the Masai’s whole family and even the village chief comes down to say hello. They teach Scott about subsistence farming, their religious beliefs and their way of life. In return, Scotty teaches them all he knows – about beer, doughnuts and pizza.
The combination of the heat, the four-hour wait in the sun, my state of health, lack of food and riding with punctures made it a very, very tough afternoon.
One highlight that certainly kept me going during that afternoon was when we cycled past a big school at going home time. The kids in their school uniforms lined both sides of the road, crowding forward with their arms out so we could give high fives as we cycled past. It was chaos and a surprise that no one got run over. I kept myself going from then on with Tour de France fantasies.
The beautiful campsite on the southeast edge of Lake Manyara made the ordeal worthwhile. I just make it through dinner without falling asleep or having to disappear to the loo. I almost begin to feel sorry for myself until they unload the really ill people off the bus – eek.
The mechanics have not only cycled with us mending punctures all day but the four of them now stay up almost all night mending punctures. They are superb and always have a smile on their faces.
Apparently a pack of hyenas come into the site that night and our Masai guards chase them off (we have Masai guards as we are sleeping in lion country. The guards are armed with red blankets so we’re confident of our safety!). I would have welcomed death by hyena rather than having to live through that day again, though.
Our original route would have taken us around the lake to the northern tip and was said to be a stunning and exhilarating off road cycle. However to avoid more punctures we have a 70km road ride ahead of us retracing our steps of yesterday to where we had lunch and then heading more North west. We transport the bikes the half-mile back to the road on the bus roofs. Somehow I get two punctures doing this and start the day as I finished the previous one.
It’s bloody hot and really hard work staying with the guys at the front. I can only make the pace by slipstreaming some of the taller guys and using them as wind breaks. There are four or five of us wheel to wheel for mile after mile and eventually I get into a trance-like state and just get sucked along in the slipstream.
Later we find out that it was over 120°F (50°C) at the campsite during the afternoon, off the scale of our thermometers. God knows how hot it was on the road. The portable GPS systems have a 120F auto shut off and were refusing to work.
We have 40km to cover after lunch and at first the road is good. But it eventually deteriorates to a dusty rocky track and we really begin to suffer. This suffering intensifies when the bus with the sick people passes and I catch a glimpse of Scott’s face grinning wildly and waving out of one of the windows – he doesn’t look very ill at all. Scotty got a puncture soon after lunch and rather than allow the mechanics to get to work he threw his bike in the back and climbed aboard.
After 30km we think we are nearly there. But no – the last 10km is off road – it’s tough as hell. We are cycling along the salt flats that surround Lake Manyara, the sand is quite deep in places causing complete loss of control, which is amusing. The leading five or six of us stop for a break with 3km to go and there’s no one else in sight. Soon there’s just Chris and I left – the other leaders suffering physical or mechanical failure right at the last. I don’t know how I manage to keep the pedals turning and it’s a huge relief to see the tents and get a welcoming round of applause from the campsite team and the unwell guys who have arrived by bus.
Once again I just make it through dinner before hitting the sack. It’s a great campsite with Lake Manyara bordered by mountains on the horizon. We can see pink flamingos on the lake edge.
Our last morning of cycling starts with a gentle ride back over that 10km of salt flats – it’s easier after a nights rest and it’s also gently downhill in this direction. We stop at the road to regroup and suddenly kids come running in all directions – there seem to be hundreds of them. There is an impromptu game of football and lots of photo opportunities.
We then set off to tackle the 17km climb that zig-zags up the cliff side to our hotel. It’s first gear all the way but the view from the top is stunning. It takes a good couple of hours for the last cyclists to make it to the top. Then we ride together in formation the last 3km to the hotel where we get a glass of bubbly, lunch, showers and cold beer.
Would you believe it, as we finally settle by the pool it clouds over and even drizzles. Damn, my tan has just disappeared in the shower and now the suns gone as well. A pack of baboons wander through the grounds stealing stuff off balconies and even getting into a couple of the hotel rooms.
At dinner that evening Scott is asked to say a few words about his 12-year-old cousin Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy. Scott says: “As Sarah has described Nicholas is always in a wheelchair, his head lolling forward, dribbling and unable to communicate. In fact just like my Gran, so now we have two in the family.” I laughed, until I sensed the awkward silence all around the room. Luckily Scott went on to redeem himself with a very touching talk. I’ve never seen him so in touch with his feminine side – must have been all that crouching in the bush.
We proceed to get drunk like students again. Scott and I decide we will strip off and jump in the pool ‘top bombing’ style but fortunately we can’t get the video camera to work. We decide to climb a tree instead. We make it to bed at 4am giving us a whole four hours sleep – double what we have managed most nights in the bush.
We leave at 10am and get to Nairobi airport at 9pm. The driver is insane and we are all terrified by the time we arrive. We have lunch at the five-star Hotel Impala in Arusha. It’s the first big town we’ve seen as we have been off the beaten track for most of the time – it’s chaos.
The views have been spectacular, especially the stars at night and the sunsets. Tanzania isn’t a beautiful country in the conventional sense, but the massive scale is breathtakingly impressive. It’s much greener than I’d expected but I think I’m addicted to the sea and beaches.
Wednesday dawns while we are in the air. I sleep like a baby – a very smelly baby – and dream of pizza and ice cream and toilets with a flush.
Scotty and I will have raised £8,000 between us by the time we have collected all the money and the combined total for the group is already over £250,000 – with more coming in every day.
Scope is a disability organisation in England and Wales whose focus is people with cerebral palsy. Scope’s aim is that disabled people achieve equality: a society in which they are as valued, and have the same human and civil rights, as everyone else. Scope runs a range of charity trips and adventures – find out more at www.scope.org.uk.