What a mad weekend that was! It’s difficult to know where to start with this post, as so much has happened since the last one, but here goes. Following the arrival of the “newbies” a new found camaraderie has formed in the village, and I’m no longer the complete outsider I was before. New friendships in all areas of the community are making me feel more and more part of daily routines, and I’m happier than ever that I have made my way out here to walk down this new path in life.
Saturday, I grabbed a lift with Katy to Moshi to get some supplies, and try to meet up with Roger and James, who I met last weekend. Full on success on both fronts, as I not only bumped into Roger after just a few minutes on the street, but he helped me find a decent 2nd hand clothes market ran by a friend of his, and pointed me in the direction of the best hardware shop where I got some batteries, blank CDs and a few other bits and pieces that I needed. In the shop window, proudly sitting there with a 175,000Tsh price tag (about £80) was a brand new fairly decent acoustic guitar, albeit right-handed, and I’m seriously thinking about treating myself. Not for now though, as I’m told there is a perfectly good right-hooker at the vocational training centre, so hopefully someone can dig it out for me, and save me the cash, but this new one is very nice. Birthday present mum?? 😉 After being out and about for an hour or so I retreated to the Coffee Shop to get some much needed shade, and bumped into a few other people I’ve met before, notably Clive Ashton and his wife Bodil. I had met this couple last time I was in the Coffee Shop and was introduced by Katy. Clive runs a local group called the Mountain Club, which, without any premises or real base, serves as a meeting group for people who want to get out into the countryside, see the sights, and not have to go through any booking company to do so. I’m really looking forward to getting out camping with this group, meeting a few other like-minders and seeing a bit more of Northern Tanzania in the process.
Heading back to Mshiri, I contacted Simon Mtuy, the unstoppable force of enthusiasm who holds the current World Record for solo ascent and descent of Kilimanjaro, at just over 9 hours. Putting that into perspective, normal trekkers take nearly that long on the final day, just to get to the summit from the previous night’s campsite. Simon’s record is from entry to the national park, up to the summit, and back out of the national park again. Simply amazing. I agreed to meet Simon at his farm at Mbahe, a few kilometres away from home, the following morning, with my bike, to ride with him and a couple of friends to Moshi, which as the crow flies is about 35km away. Little did I know what lay in store for me from then on.
Early Sunday morning I left with Bob’s cousin Nelson, who walked with me to show me the way to Mbahe, and I arrived at Simon’s sweating profusely to find I was seriously outclassed by my fellow riders. So I might have a more than adequate bicycle, but I am not fit at all, and it became immediately apparent not long after leaving the farm. I initially assumed (yes, I know, assumptions are the mother of all F&*%ups) that we would be riding mostly along the highway and lowlands down to Moshi, but instead, we started from Simon’s farm at 1865m and climbed to nearly 2000m before any hint of downhill, and continued at that altitude from there on in. Just a few minutes into the ride, I hit a rock with my front wheel, which sent the handlebars at right angles to the bike and I fell, with the full weight of my body, into the end of the bars, pivoting over with the end striking me square in the stomach right by my navel, and then landing heavily on the floor. Serious amounts of pain set in, but after a few minutes to catch my breath and check that the ‘hopper was ok, I remounted and carried on.
We ascended over hills, down into streams and back up the lush mountain ridges, and in three hours, had covered merely 9km in a straight line, and a little over 14 of actual riding, but my good god was it beautiful. These trails are the mountain tracks used by Simon to train for his runs up and down the summit, and were not only strenuous, but extremely beautiful, and really I have to thank him, because there is no way I could have navigated my way through all that by myself, nor would I have tried. At one point, we followed a trail that was barely a metre wide, with sheer cliff towering above us to our right, and a good 30m drop to the left, down into one of the Kilimanjaro signature lush streams, bounded by rocks and headed at the end by a decent sized waterfall. Words fail me to describe just how breathtaking it was to be scurrying along on my bike with this mad scenery all around, and when we stopped at a natural pool at the bottom of the waterfall, I couldn’t resist using the cold water to cool off and promptly went for a little paddle in the rocky pool.
Realising that there was no way out of this little valley we’d made our way into, I looked up to see the path ahead, and we proceeded to lift our bikes onto our backs climb the cliff face about 50m or so before hitting the path up to the next ridge. Seriously hard work, and with the sun beating down on us, I began to feel a little uneasy, and when we got back on the bikes to get to the next ridge, I felt every bump and knock as a full and very painful twinge in my stomach, and was a little worried I’d done some internal damage when I speared myself with the handlebars earlier on. We continued with me holding up the rear for another 2 or 3 kilometres, before we hit an open road with a path down to the next town, Kilema. Two old chaps sat on the path enquired as to what we were doing, and when Simon told them of the path that lay ahead, they declared us beyond mad, and had some fairly worried looks on their faces. The pain at this point was becoming unbearable and I could barely ride more than walking pace without wanting to be sick, so I made my intention to head down to Kilema rather than scale the next ridge, and the others followed me down to the next junction, where I peeled off south to the market to get some help and a ride home, and they headed back up the mountain to scale the next few ridges before they joined the highway into Moshi. I reckon there was at least another 20km of rocky trails to do before we’d reach the town, and felt with the pain, and my obvious lack of fitness, my departure from them was the most sensible course of action. A decision made all the more noteworthy a few kilometres down when I reached a small village and stopped for water.
As I approached the small shop, having come tearing down the path at a good 30km/h or so, I was spotted by this old American chap, who immediately enquired as to what the hell a solo Mzungu was doing way out there with a bike and no other items of support. I explained my injury, and the effortless pace at which my companions had continued, and settled down in a chair with a bottle of water to have a chat with him. His name was Bob, or Baba Bob (daddy Bob) as the locals called him, a jolly old fellow in his 70’s who had many a story to tell, and explained of the hardship endured by the locals in that area. He is part of a broader organisation that co-ordinates volunteers from all over the world to come and help the villagers of Kilimanjaro, and after living here for 17 years, he says that times are as bad as they’ve ever been; going so far as to explain some of the political struggles of late, and some of his personal strife, which compared to how laid back things are in Mshiri, seemed like hell on earth. He has adopted children from the area that were either rejected by their parents for being malformed or simply lost and in need of help, and with so little money in the hands of the right people, these children would end up leading very poor lives, with no education and in some cases, early death through lack of treatment for what we see as fairly common illnesses. He told me of an American nurse from Los Angeles who arrived just a couple of weeks ago, who was so shocked at the conditions these kids were in, immediately pulled some strings, and now Bob, who has been in Tanzania for years without leaving, has a paid flight with his newest adopted son Frank back to UCLA hospital, where a team of medical staff are awaiting his arrival to treat his condition. Frank was born without the use of his legs, and over his few years of life, he has developed sores and open wounds that Bob tells me a “normal” white person like me would likely convulse at first sight. Frank’s legs are to be amputated, he is to have surgery to his genitals to make them function properly again, and with Bob alongside him to ensure it all happens correctly, Frank’s life is about to get a whole lot brighter. It’s hard to imagine how I ever sat at home in the UK and worried about the price of this or whether I should go to that pub, meet with him or her for this that or the other, and all the other drivel we call our lives, when there are people here who have so precisely nothing… we are beyond spoiled. It simply isn’t fair how privileged we are as Europeans, and it makes me sick to think that I worked for a company such as Imperial Tobacco for the time I did, when the profits from things like smoking tobacco could be put to far better use than lining the pockets of executive idiots who care nothing but for their own wealth and fortune.
Harrowing as his tales were, Bob is a surprisingly upbeat and positive chap, who became very concerned for my wellbeing when he saw the green and purple bruise on my stomach, which was beginning to make me feel very ill, and certainly was preventing me from riding any further on my bike. He negotiated a fair price with the Dalla Dalla driver to get me back to Marangu, and after a long, hot sweaty ride along the mountain tracks, and having told Katy of my woes, I arrived to find Dilly waiting for me to give me a lift back up to Mshiri with my bike. Long after I initially hurt myself, I was now in agony. I had a shower then made my way back up to Dilly and Katy’s house and sat with a beer to recount the story to amazed faces who couldn’t believe how crazy a day I’d had.
Soon after, the latest arrivals to Mshiri came through the door: a young couple in their final year of a media creation degree, who have come to Tanzania to focus on our project and film a documentary about our lives as volunteers, our impact on the local schools and the project as a whole. Both fresh from a full successful ascent of Kilimanjaro, we had a lot to talk about as a group, and looking around at the excited faces of us already here, and these new arrivals marvelling at the tasks ahead of them, I again realised my true ambition and had a very warm feeling inside as I contemplated this new life of mine, and how much I’m revelling in it each and every day. The night wore on and after several beers, all feeling very jolly, we parted company and I walked back down from the house to my own little abode, by the wonderful full moon-lit sky; a tear falling from my cheek. I’m where I am supposed to be, and if I can help it, I am never going back to my old life again.