In Tanzania, the top draws are Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and Zanzibar. With the exception of the latter and the corridor between Mt. Kilimanjaro and the coast, much of Tanzania is quite homogeneous and offers little to the cyclist except for miles of poor roads. That be as it may, Tanzania does have a number of other fascinating attractions that draw little publicity. Examples include the only area in Africa were you can find Cushite, Nilotic, Bantu and Khoisan based languages in close proximity to one another (Kondoa District), rock paintings (Kolo) and stone-age sites (Isimila), pine forests, picturesque mountains and Lake Victoria. As interesting as each is, they are very scattered so it is difficult to fit them all into a single bike tour.
Your experiences with the people are likely to be about the same. You will encounter some high points (children can be very respectful). But by generally very hospitable African standards, a lot of the road edge reception in Tanzania seems mediocre, mocking and negative and some of this crowd (usually males between the ages of 13-23) will leave a distinctly bitter taste in your mouth. If you do find yourself crossing the country on two-wheels, a couple of very pleasant and less touristed areas to build into a Tanzania tour are the Usambara Mountains, the cultural tourism programs around Arusha, Babati and any direction from Mbeya. In short, cycle touring in Tanzania is best when one is very selective, or is otherwise a dedicated cyclist.
A quick look at a map of Tanzania will show very few roads for its size. Many of the roads that have been built have historically not been kept in good repair — though a major road rehabilitation effort in the early 1990’s vastly changed this for the short term.
Cycling in Dar Es Salaam is generally not a pleasant experience: it is hot, vehicles are smoky and traffic is heavy. The heavy traffic does create some gridlock so a bicycle is a good way to get around, if you can get past the other issues. Outside of the central city, where vehicle speeds increase dramatically, many of the arterials have side-paths, so there is a choice of riding space. But, the side-paths also can be problematic: parked cars, lots of driveways and cross-traffic, poor surfaces, heavy pedestrian use and discontinuity.
From Dar Es Salaam there is one truck road upcountry. Between Dar and Morogoro it is paved, but first twenty-miles (33km) are very narrow and have heavy bus and truck traffic.
The spur to the north (Chalinze to Korogwe) is rehabilitated so it is a good riding surface, but be forewarned that it is sparsely populated, there are few services, it has 160km (100mi) of hills and a high percentage of the traffic is heavy vehicles. At times, highway banditry has been a problem on this section.
North of Korogwe to Moshi, Arusha and Babati, the route is scenic and there are more road side services and amenities (towns), at least as far as Arusha (Korogwe-Mombo (40km), Mombo-Bwiko (40km), Bwiko-Hedaru (25km), Hedaru-Same (55km), Same-Kisangara (40km), Kisangara-Mwanga (10km), Mwanga-Hime (35km), Hime-Moshi (25km), Moshi-Usa River (60km), Usa River-Arusha (20km)). This whole area is developing a number of community based tourism programs that are all worth a stop and some several days of exploration (see “Comments” below for more details”).
From Mombo there is a great opportunity for a side trip into the Usambara Mountains (“the Switzerland of Tanzania”). Don’t just stop in Lushoto — it gets even better the further you go. The Friends of Usambara Mountains will help you to visit small villages, development projects, tea estates, cheese factories and to enjoy the extraordinary scenery. But, always be prepared for cool damp (rainy) weather.
From Korogwe to the east and north, Tanga and Mombasa, Kenya, the road is good and easy to travel. Similarly, from Hime to Taita and from Arusha to Namanga, Kenya, the road is easily passable. The road from Tanga to Pangani is very rough and the further south you go the more local people seem to have a real worry about bandits on the road.
To the northwest of Morogoro the road should be paved to Dodoma, but it is pretty uneventful. North, south and west of Dodoma the roads are usually bad in all directions.
On the Mbeya road, once you get past Morogoro, the route is pleasant cycling and tends to get more scenic as you go west. From Morogoro to Iringa services are a bit scarce so travel well stocked, but beyond Iringa you should pass at least a couple towns a day where you can replenish supplies.
If the line that stretches across the map from Arusha to Dodoma and Iringa intrigues you; you’ll want to think about it at least twice. The northern quarter is paved. Also recommended is the northern section between Babati, Bereko and Kolo. It is beautiful. But between Kondoa, Irangi and Iringa it is mostly flat, bone jarring and has little of interest. There are archeological sites worth visiting near both Kolo and Iringa.
To go on the most direct route from Arusha to Lake Victoria you have to cross the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park. You will not be allowed to ride your bike in either of these areas or any other national parks — it is prohibited. There are buses at least every other day from Arusha to Mwanza (14-16 hours) and visa-versa, but not all can easily carry bicycles and you will be required to pay US$20 (until they raise the fee again) as you enter each park (US$40 total). It is probably easiest to board the bus at the terminus, but on the east side you can ride as far west as Karatu, and on the west side the park gate is not far off of the paved highway. There are also daily buses via Singida which are about 30% cheaper, has no park entries, but don’t pass through the park and takes about 24 hours.
Cycling in western Tanzania is more of a challenge. Most of the roads out of Mwanza have disintegrated and no rehabilitation seems to be on the horizon. There is a good road from Nyanguge to Musoma. Unless you have reason to go to Western Tanzania, there is little to recommend, except the wildlife and rural life-style. If you do find yourself there, you will probably want to take the most direct route and hopefully will be properly equipped for the journey. There is a train to western Tanzania and the lake steamer from Mwanza to Kampala (Port Bell) takes bikes (when its running).
Western Tanzania is real bush country and interesting cycling but BLOODY DIFFICULT. There are few continuous good roads, distances are long between services and it is pretty homogeneous, but the people are generally more congenial than in the east. You might get chased by tsetse flies for two days and about when you are feeling exhausted just look down at the lion tracks on the road to find extra motivation. Large parts of western Tanzania have the fly problem, but you may still prefer to ride in the more “wild” areas because flies can be preferable to the homicidal drivers of the highways. Take along some white clothes and cloth (to cover your panniers) will help keep the insects away (they are attracted by dark blue and black). Make sure your own suit is long-sleeved and THICK.
In the remote rural areas the people don’t see many tourists. Expect to get a steady stream of “Shikamoo, Mzee” from respectful children (except for those who run away screaming in terror). You will know you are getting back to “civilization” (i.e. Mbeya) when the first thing you hear is “Mzungu give me money.”
The ride south from Mbeya is thoroughly great. It doesn’t have the wildlife but the roads are much better surfaced and the scenery is hilly and dramatic. Leaving town, you first climb for about thirty km or so then you have one of the world’s great descents; sixty km downhill all the way to Lake Malawi. It can get quite cold at the top, though, so keep that thick long-sleeved fly suit handy a bit longer.