When Bike Touring Goes Wrong

15 Dec

Up at 7 for a bit of bike maintenance before breakfast, and of course it’s humid and pushing 30 degrees C already. I cleaned the gunge off of the gears and cleaned and oiled the chain with a toothbrush Jared from Mombasa had given me. Loaded and looking forward to cycling through Saadani Game Reserve, I backtrack and slipslide for 8 sandy miles and return to the coastal road.

The road becomes quieter and thinner with each passing mile, ever changing sand depths and creeping thorny bush make for vigilant cycling. After 3 hours or so, disaster. The rear wheel deadlocks. Skidding to a stop I look down and see the rear derailleur hanging off the bike by the cable. The chain comprehensively wedged in the bike’s most intimate areas.

Unfortunately, I missed my chance to fall to my knees and scream ‘Nooooooo!’ at the sky. A topless man saw me from his nearby hut, and he and his family started gathering around me. I thought it best to keep cool, and start deconstructing the bike. The father and sons helped take the chain out, which took some time but remained in one piece.

I removed the broken dropout and replaced it with the spare that Neil from Bikezone had given to me. I took the chain apart and removed the bent links, using Jared’s explanation of how to use this tool:

All good so far, now to reconnect the now slightly shorter chain… How do you reconnect a chain? I checked my Dutch bike repair manual, and realised I can’t read Dutch, not even close. I experiment with brute force. One long hour later, just when I’m about to concede to defeat, the father reappears with his machete. He points to the bike with a chopping motion. Reluctantly, I decided against a frenzied attack on the bike with the machete, it wouldn’t be fair to my sponsors, and resolve to get to Zanzibar by boat and find a new chain there.

I flagged down the first motor I see on the road, two guys on a moped, and asked them to take me to a small fishing village, from where dhows (death traps) sail to Zanzibar. They were up for it. But how do you fit a bike, a trailer, 6 bags, a cyclist and a driver on a moped? I was pessimistic. They were optimistic. I had little choice. With a scarsely masked sense of doom, I helped as we started stacking, piling and balancing.

Just as branches were being wedged into parts of the motorbike, a big truck carrying a dozen people hurtled up the path. I waved it down, chucked my lot in the back and got a lift to said fishing village for half the price agreed with the motorbike men.

I arrived at the village and asked for The Captain, who sails to Zanzibar at 8 p.m., or so they told me. I tried to haggle down the inflated price with 10 – 15 men who spoke no English, for an hour at least. I say haggled. Acted stubborn. I placed a bet on a game of pool. Whoever wins gets their price. That took a while to explain. The captain declined. It was clear word had got out about my swashbuckling shots in Tanga.

Eventually we agreed that I should pay 3 times the normal price, instead of 5. 20,000TS (£8) for the 7 hour ride. It’s illegal for tourists to travel to Zanzibar by boat from anywhere but Dar es Salaam. I had read about this previously, and The Captain was worried about being fined. Worried to the point of extortion, if you ask me.

In haggling, I had stressed that I had no more shillings left, so I resigned myself to a spartan existence throughout the wait. A man they called Obama wanted to show me round the place. He looks more like William Gallas with extra muscle to me but I go with him. He speaks no English but waxes Swahili as if I understand, always puzzled when I shake my head instead of responding eloquently.

He introduces me to everyone. 100 families? It becomes a parade more than a tour. I shake hands and pay my respects to elders with ‘shikamoo’ (greetings) and they reply ‘marahaba’. Otherwise it’s ‘mambo’ (how are you?), ‘safi’ (good) and ‘kwaherini’ (bye everyone).

The village, Kipumbwi, is basic, populated with very muscly men and hardworking women. Obama takes me to his place and cuts me a fresh coconut while I sit with his kids:

When it starts getting dark Obama takes me to the village pub, a little shack that shows hip hop from Zanzibar, Tanzania and – the most aggressive – America. This is when my cameras battery runs out. Wusses out more like. Just when things start getting interesting. From hereon in I will have to conjure up accurate images using the medium of words. Which is a shame, because it was well spooky.

I sit on the beach with my lot chained to a tree, waiting for 8p.m.. Obama lays down a blanket and sits with me. It’s pitch black and he’s brought his radio along. He gets across the idea of sleeping here. Something’s up. I thought the boat would be here in an hour or so. He offers me some Tanzanian brandy, which I decline. Proof that I’m worried. Obama and the fishermen start whispering together. Why the hell would they whisper, when I’m the only other person in earshot, and I don’t speak Swahili?

An English speaking resident descends on me. The Zanzibar boat leaves at 2 a.m. Stop worrying you crazy white boy. So I realised I was being paranoid, had some tea. Thunder and lightning boiled up and broke overhead.

Several of us sheltered in an old German warehouse, where a few poor travellers slept on the dirt floor. Obama fetched a plastic sheet and covered my stuff. One guy was dancing to hip hop and going for it too in the downpour in the market, which is great entertainment between watching my kit like a hawk with a torch.

At about 10 p.m. I help Obama load timber onto a boat. The boat to Zanzibar. We load my bike and bags and head back to the pub. Obama buys me a couple of beers and now, finally, I’m warming to the guy, the village and the situation. It’s all been a bit of a non-adventure.

Obama falls asleep after too many joints (also he laces his Kilimanjaro beer with brandy) but he still accompanies me back to the beach. I had given him $5 for the beers and all was well. He stumbled off to bed at 1 a.m. and I sat and waited. After a while I crawled onto the boat with some others and slept on the piles of timber.

The captain arrived. Captain Fantom. Tall, brisk and full bearded. The tide had arrived under us, and lifted us up and then dozens of people clambered onto the boat. Half an hour later and dozens more. And then again. I had legs and arms and feet all over me. Using all their strength 6 men heaved up the massive sail, which was an amazing, ancient spectacle. The dhow is a ramshackle, cracked and bloated wooden ship with a patchwork sail that wouldn’t be the slightest bit out of place 2000 years ago. Pinned together and weighed down, just like the boat we  trusted our lives in, one hundred or so of us  crunched up for the 9 hours it takes to sail to the a rocky outcrop of eastern Zanzibar. Lightning forks the horizon. Two guys rhythmically bail out water, which drips on me, the whole way. People puke into this bucket, which gets passed back and thus the ride continues.

At the rocky outcrop, more haggling to get my stuff into a small boat and onto the island. Once on the island, I’m pulled in by an immigration official. I’m an illegal immigrant, he says. He goes through my bags. He likes my story though. He wants a bribe. He asks for $20. I say $10. He says I come from England, are we destitute in my country? I say I’m an illegal immigrant. What illegal immigrant isn’t destitute? He let’s me pass for $10 and I wheel my chainless bike in the sun in the direction of Stone Town. I grab a matatu. Find a guesthouse.

A long day but I tell you what – if it wasn’t for the Tanzanians’ resourcefulness and flexibility, this story would have been even longer.

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