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Two wheels and an open heart
“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.” - HG Wells
Spend a day cycling in Zanzibar and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve discovered some kind of secret. With warm wind in your hair, groups of excited children yelling “jambo!” or “howah-yoouu” after you, and the exhilaration of making your own way – it is truly the best way to get to know a place.
Cycling is the one way to travel that’s fast enough to cover serious ground and slow enough to see something in earnest. You’re free to start and stop as you please, and a quick detour can turn into a new adventure on a whim. When visiting a new place or getting to know somewhere you’ve lived for a while, cycling is a way to re-see the world.
Cycle tourism in Africa has taken off in recent years. Environmentally and economically friendly, alternative cycle tours are popular with both off-the-beaten-path travellers and more conventional but socially aware tourists. Organised trips can be great for travellers who have limited time and don’t want to scour maps and do tonnes of research to find feasible routes or accommodation.
Most Tanzanian cycle companies are based in Arusha or Dar. Cycling out in Western Tanzania is significantly more difficult, but can be done with dedication and planning. For others - residents, expats or just people with a little more time and spontaneity - things can be a little more casual. With an adventurous spirit, a freewheeling (pun intended) journey could be as simple as a bottle of water and a bicycle – map optional.
You can rent bikes easily in Zanzibar (just ask at a hotel, most of them will help you). To buy, head just a little out of Stone Town in any direction. In any number of shops, you’ll find a wide selection of used mountain and Chinese-style bikes. Chinese bikes, while certainly flimsier than a mountain bike, are surprisingly resilient. Bring along a local friend to help you ask questions – and don’t forget to test the brakes before you buy.
Since moving to Zanzibar, I’ve found freedom in my scuffed and gearless red bicycle. I found her on Mombasa Road, after visiting bike shop after bike shop in search of the perfect ride. Practicing my nascent haggling skills I was proud to get a respectable price and since then I’ve biked as far north as Mangapwani and as far south as Fumba.
Fumba is a tiny village near the Menai Beach Conservation area, and the jump off point for Safari Blue. Seven intrepid explorers, myself included, decided to cycle there on a Sunday to check out the coast. After dealing with two flat tyres, a broken pedal, and a few hangovers, we finally left Stone Town at 1pm – only three and a half hours after our planned departure time. Locals met us with amused stares as the wazungu train left the narrow streets of town for the flat, wide and well-maintained expanse of the main road south.
After a few glorious hours, we stopped for a break and biked right into a football game with a horde of kids. While half of us stretched our quads and relaxed on the grass, the more energetic among us took to the field and provided entertainment for the spectators and the talented kids playing. Spontaneous moments like these are what a cycling trip is all about.
When we reached our destination, we cycled down a bumpy dirt track towards Fumba Beach Lodge. In spite of a near revolt when discovering beers at the lodge were US$7 – yes, that’s US$7 – we spent an hour or so lounging ocean-side and resting our tired muscles. It felt like just a few minutes before we realised it was an hour to sunset – with another 23 km to bike home. We hopped on our bicycles and cycled as fast as our jelly-legs would take us. Our leisurely ride and restful break had turned into a race against time.
In spite of my screaming quads, I felt a moment of exhilaration as we reached the roundabout on the outskirts of town just as the sun started to sink behind the Stone Town skyline, glowing red behind the clouds in that uniquely Zanzibari way. Another adventure completed successfully.
By bicycle, you can leave the clogged main arteries of the city for the back roads and rural zones where real, daily life takes place. That’s the true beauty of cycling. Any day with a bicycle has any number of possibilities.
During the week my bike sits inside the front door of my building. If I neglect it for too long, I feel like it develops a reproachful aura, silently calling to me to get off my butt and ride. My walk to work is too short to ride it, but on the weekends? The coast is the limit.
Looking for an organised trip? Any number of companies in Tanzania offer bicycle trips in various regions. Here are a few ideas to get you started: Cycle Tours Tanzania is based in Arusha and offers cycle trips for tourists to any major landmark or site. Friends of the Usambaras offers cycle trips in the Lushoto region. In Dar es Salaam, AfriRoots offers guided cycle tours that dare to show you the “real” city, behind the traffic jams and general madness of the main roads. On Zanzibar, organised cycle trips like those offered by Adventure Afrika offer a highly organised itinerary for the short-term foreign visitor.