My bike kicks up a thick plume of orange dust as I freewheel down the hill, legs flailing. Bemused locals down hoes and stare open-mouthed at our strange convoy of granny cycles as a handful of small children dance in the dust cloud, furiously waving their little arms. To the locals, the sight of 10 tourists riding rickety bikes through their backwater village is probably akin to an alien invasion.
My friends and I are cycling to Miwaleni Springs in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro – a meltwater aquifer about an hour’s ride from Tanzania’s main east-west motorway, along a sandy track that few outsiders have ventured down since the early Sixties, when the Union Jack was last lowered over this former British protectorate.
Fields of large sunflowers reach up to the blazing African sun, chocolate-coloured goats bleat from the roadside, distant mountain ranges shimmer in shades of purple and jade – it’s a million miles from the open savannah and beach resorts of the tourist brochures.
“Let’s race!” cries Hereswida, one of our newfound Tanzanian friends we met over beers a couple of nights ago. He is now perched precariously above my back wheel. The rest of the group takes this as their cue, whizzing past us, while we wobble from left to right.
They eventually disappear over the horizon, to be replaced by a line of trees crowning above the parched maize fields – a mini-oasis of palms and acacias strung together with vines and creepers.
As Hereswida and I draw nearer, we find a handful of bikes casually abandoned in the ochre-red dust. The air echoes with the sound of splashing water and shrieks of excitement and we follow a trail of T-shirts to the edge of a fast-flowing stream, where the rest of the group is already frolicking in the springs – much to the amusement of the dozen or so locals who have arrived to see what all the commotion is about.
A couple of us wade upstream and float back down on our backs. I hear a faint rustling high above us in the palms. “Monkeys!” yells my friend Jordan, at the top of his voice, pointing up to the canopy where a couple of curious vervets leer quizzically from the branches, lips pursed, eyes wide as saucers, their little heads nodding from side to side. Two of the adolescents scuttle down the tree to munch on fruit hanging just above the water.
My friends and I have been in Tanzania for a couple of weeks, but until today we’d barely veered off the beaten track. We’re keen to discover more of this Tanzania, though, and beg our new local pals to show us more attractions the rest of the world has yet to discover.
“Well, you’ve got to go to Pub Alberto,” says Jenifa, at 23 the youngest of our Tanzanian friends. “They play the best bongo flava there.”
“Yes,” interjects her pal Ernest, who arranged the bikes for our little jaunt. “Let’s shake our bodies!”
The club, in nearby Moshi – a leafy, low-rise town where Kilimanjaro climbers spend their final night of civilisation before ascending the mountain, which looms above the rooftops – is a bustling nightspot that blares out only the most hip-grindingly good tunes. We’re the only Westerners here – the Kili crowd tends to stick to the tourist hotspots churning out the same Eurotrash dance music from back home.
Thankfully, Pub Alberto’s raison d’être is its bongo flava, East Africa’s energetic, booty-shaking answer to hip-hop and R‘n’B. The gyrating couples bump and grind to the sultry, intoxicating beat, making Rihanna look like a prude.
Jenifa and Hereswida insist on teaching us how to throw some local shapes, dragging us to the dancefloor just as our plate of chicken arrives – it’s a very laid-back hangout; somewhere between a nightclub, a restaurant and a tiki bar.
Determined not to let good food go to waste, I start a new craze: the chicken drumstick dance – boogying away, piece of poultry in each hand. It’s only the following morning that I discover the downside to this twist on the Macarena: my poor friend Suzi’s dress is covered in chicken grease. After helping her wash the stains from her clothes, the rest of the gang and I pile into one of the local minibuses and head towards a hand-hewn volcanic-mine in Uchira, a sleepy village at the base of Kilimanjaro where Ernest, Jenifa and Hereswida live. The minibuses – or dala-dalas – are designed to seat about 12, but anything up to 40 people, two goats and a dozen chickens can be crammed in these tiny vehicles. It’s not uncommon to spend a 30-minute journey suspended in mid-air by the sheer mass of bodies squished inside.
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There are less than 30 people onboard today – I even manage to nab a seat opposite a couple of hefty nuns, chatting loudly to each other in Swahili. It’s not all plain sailing: the bus’s suspension seems to be on the blink and every jolt in the road has us bouncing like we’re on a fairground ride. One particularly nasty pothole sends me flying out of my seat towards the mother superior – I only narrowly avoid giving her a lap dance. Fortunately, the sisters find the whole carry-on highly amusing.
My friends and I bid the nuns farewell just outside Uchira, where we find a warren of pitch-black tunnels and four-storey-high columned chambers carved deep into the hillside. We head underground, finding gangs of men cutting blocks of pumice stone – used locally in building – from the rock face, the flicker of gas lamps the only light to guide them. Outside, caravans of women walk up and down the steep-sided entrance to the pit, four volcanic blocks balancing on each of their heads, cheap flip-flops on their feet.
Our next destination, an hour’s drive east, couldn’t be further removed from the hubbub of the mine. A huge caldera lake glistens in the afternoon sun – the result of an enormous volcanic eruption some three-quarters-of-a-million years ago. It’s blissfully quiet; just us, a troupe of olive baboons, and three ant-sized fishermen skimming across Lake Chala’s glassy, turquoise surface 300ft (100m) below.
As we edge closer to the crater’s rim, the baboons slink off into the dense forest clinging to the caldera’s sheer walls, howling at us as they depart. We follow them down to the water’s edge, scrabbling along a barely trodden path – it’s a tough descent but well worth any pain we may feel tomorrow. A peregrine falcon hunts stealthily overhead; tropical birds hum in the trees, a family of colobuses lounge by the lake’s lapping shore – Ernest’s found us the epitome of a hidden gem.
After bribing a fishermen to take us exploring in his canoe, we scale back up the caldera’s lofty ramparts to be greeted by the great snow-capped Kilimanjaro, soaring majestically above the plains, its blanket of clouds finally lifted. We stand in silence, necks craned skywards, staring in awe at the mountain towering over us. The scene proves too alluring to resist and we soon find ourselves bumping through its emerald foothills on yet another packed dala-dala.
Huge waterfalls erupt from the hillsides, careering over jungle-covered cliffs, Evian-pure rock-pools glisten invitingly below rainbow-streaked spray, tiny chameleons blush in hues of yellows and greens – throw in a few dinosaurs and you’ve got the next sequel to Jurassic Park ready to go.
My friends and I set up base in Marangu, former capital of Kilimanjaro’s Chagga tribe, and explore the area. First on the list is a network of underground caves, hand-dug by the Chagga to protect against invasions by the Masai warriors, who used to regularly invade neighbouring tribes’ territory in pre-colonial times, plundering cattle and massacring entire communities in the process.
A wizened old woman recounts in Swahili how her tribe would lure marauding Masais into the network of tunnels before slipping out of specially designed escape routes and entombing the enemy inside. She’s a master storyteller, raising her hands dramatically to the sky, before bringing them crashing back down in a sudden rush of adrenaline – we hang on Ernest’s every word as he translates between long, dramatic pauses.
Intrigued, we decide to learn more about the wily Chagga – who were the first tribe in the country to embrace Christianity, and have all but abandoned other traditional customs, including their native tongue and dress – with a visit to the ‘Chagga Live Museum’, essentially a traditional hut built by local people to teach the now entirely Westernised tribe about their past. It’s a fascinating place – far superior to the tourist-trap Masai villages that line the motorway.
My friends and I are particularly interested to hear about the Chagga’s dalliances with illegal brewing – apparently they’re masters at turning bananas into anything alcoholic – and set out in search of some homebrew.
Our man Ernest comes up trumps once more, sweet-talking a bar owner into fetching us her secret stash of banana beer from the backroom. It’s stand-your-spoon-in-it thick, but incredibly moreish – like a big, beery helping of Angel Delight.
The bar is heaving with half-cut locals swaying to an almost salsa-esque beat. A couple of the girls decide to get up and dance, shimmying their way into the middle of the crowd, beckoning the rest of us over to join them.
“Right,” I say to my friend Suzi. “You order the chicken drumsticks; I’ll meet you on the dancefloor.”
How to do it
GETTING THERE: Return flights from London Gatwick to Dar es Salaam cost from £444 with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com/en-uk).
WHEN TO GO: Avoid visiting Tanzania in April and May, when the heavy rains arrive. There are also light rains in November.
CURRENCY: £1 = TZS2525 (Tanzanian shilling)
ACCOMMODATION: A twin or double room at Twiga Home, near Moshi, starts from £8pn (moshi-hostel.com), while camping at Lake Chala Safari Camp costs £8pppn. Tent rentals are an additional £12pn (lakechalasafaricamp.com).
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Best of the Rest: Tanzania’s tourist hotspots
Between October and November, more than two million wildebeest, zebras and antelope pour across the crocodile-infested Mara River in search of pastures new in Tanzania. Braving lions, leopards and hyenas, the herd follows the rains to the great southern plains, giving birth en masse during January and February, before slowly munching its way back north to Kenya for the summer.
How: A three-day safari in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater costs £500 (including food, drinks, fees, four nights’ accommodation and optional transfers to Nairobi. Excludes alcohol).
The world’s tallest free-standing mountain has “climb me” written all over it. Standing at more than 19,300ft (5895m), Kili’s snow-capped summit is nearly five times the height of Ben Nevis and towers forebodingly above the plains. But despite its impressive stature, Africa’s highest peak is considered a relatively easy ascent – most unsuccessful climbers fall foul of altitude sickness rather than the climb itself.
How: A seven-night Kilimanjaro trek starts from £770pp (including food, accommodation and fees. Excludes drinks).
A two-hour ferry ride (or 20-minute flight) from the frenetic African metropolis of Dar es Salaam is another world entirely: white powdery sand, translucent seas, neon-coloured fish – a little slice of Mauritius or the Seychelles at just a fraction of the price. But it’s not all jet skis, scuba diving, cocktails and luxury on this Indian Ocean paradise. Intrepid travellers can get lost in the winding streets of Stone Town, explore abandoned Arab palaces, and learn about the island’s dark slaving history.
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The insider’s guide
Gerald Sakaya, who works for an agricultural development agency in the Kilimanjaro region, takes you off the beaten track in Tanzania.
What is Tanzania’s best-kept secret?
More than 28 per cent of Tanzania is given over to national parks and nature reserves, but, for some reason, most tourists stick to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara in the north of the country. Just 120 miles (200kms) west of Dar es Salaam, though, is one of the world’s largest conservation area, the Selous Game Reserve – a vast, unpopulated wilderness that attracts surprisingly few visitors. The park is home to thousands of elephants, as well as some of the largest concentrations of lions, hippos, buffalo and crocodiles in East Africa – not to mention a quarter of the world’s wild dog population.
Where’s good to relax?
The beaches of Dar es Salaam are a great place to chill out, and it’s a lot cheaper than Zanzibar. The old colonial neighbourhood of Oyster Bay, north of the city centre, is extremely popular, while the beaches to the south of the city are completely unspoiled. I particularly love Kigamboni or “South Beach” – a five-minute ferry ride from Dar. It’s a really pretty resort where you can chill out on the beach, hire jet skis, play volleyball or party the night away.
Where’s good for an adventure?
The Uluguru Mountains near Morogoro are a stunning place to go hiking and climbing – with peaks that rise more than 8600ft (2600m) above sea level. You pass through pristine rainforests, stunning mountain gorges filled with waterfalls, and colonial buildings that are being slowly reclaimed by the jungle.
Where’s good to party?
Dar es Salaam has great bars and clubs, where you can listen to live bongo flava every day of the week. Another nice place is La Liga in Moshi – the DJs play every type of music imaginable.