Maasailand Manifest: Riding the Great Rift Valley

Tanzanian national parks have the greatest concentration of large carnivores on earth and a disconcertingly wide variety of human-trampling beasts. Exploring them on safari sounded like just the adventure I was looking for. But I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be allowed out of the car except in special zones. There are campgrounds in Serengeti National Park completely enclosed by metal fences. At first, I scoffed at this.

Then I saw my first lion: its muscles impossibly large, its teeth like knives, its languid exterior radiating menace. Next came word that someone on safari in neighboring Kenya had been trampled to death by an elephant. In the wilds of East Africa, animals rule.

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Still, I’m just not a car and fence guy; I’m a mountain biker. I did not go to Tanzania to sit in a car. After a week on safari I’d seen lions, hippos, elephants, cheetahs, and rhinos… while sardined in a van with eight other people. I needed out of the van and into the African air. I needed to explore this otherworld on its own terms, as another animal among animals—even if it risked being stomped, gnawed, or digested.

Fortunately I’d contacted Dave Armon, an adventurer and guide who’d been raised in Africa by British missionary parents and had recently begun guiding mountain bike trips in its wilder corners. After safari, I joined him for a six-day pedal (with a Land Rover assist) through the rarely traveled tribal lands and wild country of Northern Tanzania, a vast savannah and grassland plateau studded with volcanoes and cleaved by the Great Rift Valley. Joining us was Dave’s friend, Louise, another African via Britain; his colorful Rastafarian assistant guide Julius; and his driver, Joe, an urbanized Maasai, the dominant tribe in the greater Serengeti region we would be exploring.

A resplendent Maasai keeps an eye on his livestock at the foot of Ol Doinyo Lengai, a volcano that rises over 8,000 feet from the valley floor.
Photo by Aaron Teasdale

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We passed plenty of Maasai our first day riding. They were resplendent in their red togas, always responding to waves with luminous smiles. Whenever we took a break from pedaling the rocky roads and braiding Maasai livestock trails they would appear as if from nowhere—kids, mothers, spear-carrying warriors. One even let me try a few throws of his spear, which they’ve been known to use in lion hunts.

Though it seemed hot enough to fry an egg on my helmet, I was thrilled to be riding a bike in this place where zebras huddled in the shade of acacia trees and huge carnivorous birds called bustards stalked the landscape like dinosaurs. We didn’t see any lions, which was just fine, though they roared outside our camp that night. Hyenas strolled through, too, and made me glad I’d listened to Dave’s warning to bring my shoes inside the tent. (Apparently hyenas use them as chew toys.)

Our collective goal for the second day was simple: cross the Great Rift Valley. One of the planet’s greatest continental fractures, its separation of tectonic plates is literally splitting Africa apart. The guiding landmark for our crossing was the western Rift Wall’s 1,500-foot escarpment, clearly visible twenty miles across an open valley of acacia scrub and wildlife of undetermined varieties. With no roads or trails, we would ride cross-country.

Fortunately the desiccated soil was firm, allowing smooth pedaling as we dodged the scattered bones of unfortunate animals and the occasional bustard on the hunt. Then, minutes after setting out, we saw them: giraffes. A troop of twenty or more, moving across an open plain a few hundred yards ahead of us. We were heading straight for them.

Having never actually ridden a bicycle into a herd of giraffes, I was unsure of the proper protocol. Were these 4,000-pound ungulates bicycle-friendly? As we emerged into a half-mile-wide, giraffe-filled clearing, two dozen of the world’s longest necks rotated their heads toward us and stared. With a nonchalant grace, the Eiffel Towers of the animal kingdom drifted aside as we pedaled through. Two young Maasai boys leading a herd of goats into the clearing took no notice of the giraffes, as we might ignore deer on suburban lawns, and silently returned my wave.

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Exchanging stares with a troop of giraffes in a wild section of the Great Rift Valley.
Photo by Aaron Teasdale

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maasailand-manifest-inset5With no trail to follow, we navigated the rest of the valley by weaving our wheels between six-foot-tall termite mounds and spear-tip acacia thorns. Ever-present dust tornados spiraled sand and soil skyward in the valley around us. The sweat dripping onto my top tube dried quickly under a blast-furnace sun. Then, as the escarpment wall drew near, I grabbed my brake levers at the sight of a remarkable two-and-a-half-foot-long feather. It was from the wing of a bustard. I lashed the massive quill to the side of my backpack, which made me feel more swashbuckling and explorer-like, and kept riding.

As we emerged into a half-mile wide, giraffe-filled clearing, two dozen of the world’s longest necks rotated their heads toward us and stared.

Soon we steered onto foot and cattle paths that led past a scattering of Maasai corrals and huts constructed of thorny acacia sticks and termite-mound mud. The Maasai are a people of cattle and they live exclusively off their stock’s milk, blood, and, occasionally, meat. It’s no surprise they consider cows, their lifeblood, a gift from God. In fact, they believe God gave them all cattle, which they use to justify thievery from neighboring tribes. 

 

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Zebras and wildebeests gather in a valuable patch of shade amid a web of wildlife trails in the Serengeti. Photo by Aaron Teasdale

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“Okay now,” Dave said the next day as we stood at the edge of a wall of dark, towering trees, “there are elephants and buffalo in this forest, so we’ll have to be alert.” Then he reviewed the giant-angry-mammal-defense strategies with Louise, Julius, and me: get charged by an elephant, keep a tree, preferably a big one, between you and the elephant. Get charged by a buffalo, lie flat on the ground, perpendicular to its charge, and hope it jumps over you. maasailand-manifest-inset3

Surprisingly, and much to my joy, they let me lead. Clearly, I’d impressed them with my wilderness and bike-riding savvy. Who better then Aaron, African adventurer extraordinaire, to take the lead through the elephant- and buffalo-infested forest? Somehow it didn’t occur to me that I was also serving as a surly-beast buffer for everyone else.

In the trees, the world changed from the lion-colored plains into a verdant forest-world, where baboons and blue monkeys cackled and leapt from branch to branch overhead as we rode. A patch of mud showed fresh, crater-like tracks. Weaving between giant tentacular fig trees and hopping across small streams, I replayed Dave’s advice—elephant: big trees; buffalo: lie and pray. The air was electric, every twist in the trail tingling with possibility, every deep-throated bark of a baboon urging me forward under the living canopy.

The air was electric, every twist in the trail tingling with possiblity, every deep-throated bark of a baboon urgin me forward under the living canopy.

We eventually emerged from the forest intact and camped for the night amid elephantine baobab trees. In the following days we crossed the Serengeti, cruising dirt tracks within an ostrich-stride of the national park boundary. We camped in the wilds and pedaled through a kaleidoscope of wildlife and the smiles of countless curious Maasai.

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Julius, Dave, and Luise (left to right) glass for wild animals and possible routes across the floor of the Great Rift Valley. Photo by Aaron Teasdale

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On our second-to-last day we climbed a hill away from the Serengeti plains and the territory of the Maasia and followed rough-hewn dirt roads into the land of the Batemi Tribe. Like Maasai with a dash of Robin Hood, the Batemi carry bows not spears, and wear white belts over shorter togas. In the first village, the tenor changed. The children aggressively and without smiles asked for pens and money. A mob of young men demanded cigarettes. We didn’t linger.

I would later learn that the Batemi have a decades-old conflict with the Maasai and that hundreds of people have been killed in the last 20 years, including several deaths in last few months. Camping here wouldn’t be your first choice, but we’d already ridden fifty miles that day and daylight was running low. Dave instructed Joseph to find us a good campsite once we were out of town. Joseph, a Maasai, was nervous. Though he lived in the city and wore jeans and flip-flops, the Batemi would detect his Maasai-hood in his speech.

Joseph met us on the roadside, machete in hand, and waved us into a well-concealed area of tall green reeds. Then he approached Julius and said something in his ear.

“I am a Rastafarian,” Julius answered defiantly. “I will fight them with peace and love.”

As the tents were being set up a few minutes later, two Batemi men strolled into our camp. They had bows, small clubs, and, in sheaths hanging from their waists, the largest machetes I’d ever seen. The larger one was huge with a gruesome scar, clearly inflicted by some kind of blade, directly over his left eye socket, where his sightless eyeball had turned the color of aged bone. Neither smiled.maasailand-manifest-inset1

I couldn’t help but notice that the Batemi went unacknowledged, everyone unusually focused on setting up their tents. Determined to break the tension and meet them man to man—and totally naive of the whole hundreds-of-people-killed thing—I walked over to them, raised my hand in greeting, and said, “Jambo.” They replied in kind and then I, having exhausted my Swahili vocabulary, simply stood by them in a show of goodwill, watching the others set up tents and mill about camp.

Soon Joseph did come over and greet them. Unlike every interaction I’d seen in Tanzania, there were no smiles as they talked. Then the Batemi sat down in our chairs as if they were their own and told us the area is dangerous. We would need protection. Tembo, elephants, lived there. They could guard us — for a price.

At this, Dave came over for the first time. There was more talking, more looking at the ground, and creases furrowed Dave’s brow. This went on for fifteen minutes. A negotiating session was underway. Dave explained later that he told them, with no small amount of savvy, “We have the means to protect ourselves, but since you asked, we will pay you 10,000 shillings.”

Julius admitted to me later, “If we didn’t pay them, we thought they might be the ones we would need protection from.”

Dave downplayed things, telling me, “It’s not uncommon in new areas to pay locals like that.”

As darkness fell our guards, the Batemi mafia, made a small fire on the ground and sat by it, chatting away in a language none of us understood.

At some point in the dark of the African night I awoke, forgetting for a moment where I was. Looking up through the screen on the side of the tent, I saw the sparkling astral canvas stretched overhead. Crickets chirped and a crackling sound came from nearby. Lifting my head, I looked out at the campfire and the silhouettes of the two Batemi still sitting around it, talking in deep, hushed voices. I smiled. Now I remembered. I was in another world. I was in Africa—exploring without cages.

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Aaron_Teasdale_headshot

Aaron Teasdale is a writer and photographer from Missoula, Montana, who can typically be found roaming the planet’s wild and endangered corners with pen and camera in hand. He’s been surrounded by wolves in Montana, charged by bears in the Yukon, chased by spear-wielding tribesmen in the Serengeti, barely escaped stone-throwing mobs in Bolivia, somehow piloted a three-person mountain bike with his two sons from Glacier to Banff for six weeks, and is basically just happy to still be here.

You can see more of his award-winning work in magazines and websites like Sierra, Mountain, National Geographic Adventure, Adventure Cyclist, and his blog, which he sometimes even updates:
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