I doubt the Maasai goat herder has ever seen a flabby Westerner — one bedecked in padded-lycra cycling pants no less — huffing and wobbling along on a bicycle on a road in rural Tanzania. His laugh suggests I'm the first.
And he's a bit of a first for me too: Until I cycled around northern Tanzania, I'd never seen a Maasai goatherder. So I give him a laugh back; we wave and exchange the catch-all greeting that echoes around the roads pretty much everywhere we've pedalled on our week-long cycling trip with Intrepid Travel: "Jambo!"
The goatherder isn't the only curious spectator whose path we cross.
Within minutes of setting off on our first day of serious cycling in Arusha National Park, we reached an open plain heaving with Africa's classic wild critters. Crowds of Cape buffalo went about their grazing business as zebras mooched, baboons bared their backsides and warthogs darted. Warthogs, I can report, are among the funniest animals you'll ever see, always hustling urgently around like they know of a better prairie to be in.
In the trees around us, gorgeous red-breasted birds — I later learned they were called trogons — leapt and sang. A wild place.
Later in the day, as the hills began to tell on some in our group and the gaps between bikes widened, those of us at the front of the pack disturbed a pair of giraffes minding their own business in the forest by the roadside. The mother and adolescent took a gander at us then hoofed it, darting on strides that were equal parts gangle and precision through the dense forest.
Giraffes are fine, but there's other wildlife that I'd really prefer not to meet while pedalling a bicycle.
In a quiet moment as we checked our bikes before the ride began, I'd asked our head guide, the fabulously monikered Justaz Leonidas, about less herbivorous animals. "Um Justaz ... Are we likely to meet any lions today?"
It's the "probably" that stuck in my mind as we pedalled off.
In short bursts, a cheetah can reach 120km/h. A lion, if it can be bothered getting up and moving out of the shade, will get up to a mere 80km/h.
A reasonably fit flabby Westerner bedecked in those padded-lycra cycling pants can probably reach 40km/h riding a decent bike on a decent road. The road we cycle through Arusha National Park is far from decent, so I take a look around my fellow cyclists — there are about a dozen in our group — and pick a couple I presume aren't going to be too quick on the pedals.
Like the old saying goes, you don't need to be faster than the lion, you just need to be quicker than the slowest member of your group.
"Anyway, it's the hippos you have to watch out for," intones Justaz. He adds with some confidence that there are no lions in this part of the reserve and, for good measure, there's a dude with an AK47 riding, er, shotgun in the truck that follows behind our edgy peloton. I'd rather not have Simba blown away on my account, but it's nice to know we're covered.
Aside from the wildlife, the first day of cycling brings other wonderful highlights. As we exit the park, a dozen or so park rangers gather at the exit, slinging their AKs over their shoulders as they laugh at us, calling "Jambo" and filming us on their phones. Ours is, apparently, the first group to get a permit to cycle through Arusha National Park. Our exploits even graced a local newspaper the next day. It's a nice buzz when the locals think you're a bit of a novelty.
It's only 10km or so, but between potholes and hills the ride through the park proves pretty tough, so blazing out of the forest on a downhill run is sweet relief. Setting to our left, the African twilight sun paints the wide plains in golden dusk as we near a busy little village just outside the park. A couple of dozen kids quit their game of football and dash over to the roadside — screaming with laughter and Jambo-ing gleefully — to take in the sight of our lycra-clad convoy.
With kids high-fiving us and cheering, it feels like being a stage winner in a particularly bizarre leg of the Tour de France. And this is only day one.
Like other travel companies — and indeed, like the New Zealand tourism industry — Intrepid is pushing heavily into the cycling business. The Tanzania trip (of which ours was an abreviated version) is one of 18 new trips they're launching around the world.
Justaz, a local lad, has previously done most of his work guiding on Mt Kilimanjaro — he's been to the summit almost 300 times. So, though the cycling game is kind of new for him, he's got a head start on most of us.
A regular commuter cyclist around Auckland, this was my first major foray into bike tourism and I'm an unabashed convert.
Travelling anywhere under your own steam brings a sense of virtuous reward and though none of the cycling we did would be beyond anyone with reasonable fitness, with each day of riding, we felt we'd earned our chops. Travelling through any town, anywhere, you feel a better connection with the people than you'll ever find travelling by car or bus.
Each evening, the first beer (we drank Kilimanjaro lager — slogan: "If you can't climb it, drink it") was enriched with a hint of gentle achievement. Call it smugness, if you like.
The roads we travelled varied from bare patches of track scattered with scraggly rock to smooth highways (made by the World Bank or the Chinese, depending on who we asked) that were a pleasure to ride and would put to shame most of the main roads on which we expect visitors to cycle in New Zealand.
The riding was made easier by the fact our bags were carried in the truck, the only extra weight being our water bottles — replenished at regular stops where we gathered with dusty brows to swap road commentary and neck orange juice. Each night we stayed in new digs, mostly a series of nice mid-range lodges and, memorably, one gorgeous campsite, Mkuru Safari Camp, featuring a long-drop toilet with sunrise views of Mt Meru.
On our rides, there were no prizes for finishing first. The toughest stretch of our week was a gut-booting 3km uphill climb near the end of the journey. In all, we knocked off 112km in six days, with day two being our biggest — a 43km haul that took me past the blanket-clad Maasai goatherder who found me so hilarious.
That evening, we had dinner in a local village, an older Maasai guy borrowing one of our bikes to lead us in wobbly fashion over the last 5km of offroad trek. We timed our arrival perfectly, the men of the village having just returned from several days of watching livestock in the wild, the women and kids had gathered to greet them with song. The young men, wiry and tough to the core — killing a lion is considered a rite of passage for these blokes — respond with song of their own, taking turns to spring into the air.
I'm shameless enough to have a go at jumping with them. The key to the Maasai leap, I learn, is to spring from the feet, not the thighs. Also, it helps if you're not a lardy, lycra-clad Westerner.
We were parched and hungry from the day's ride, nonetheless when it was time for dinner one or two in our group said "no thanks" to the starter: A cup of warm broth enriched with live calf's blood. It tasted like a mouthful of the road we'd just ridden. The main course of barbecued goat was delicious — I'm claiming that as a last laugh over the goatherder. Jambo, mate!
On the shores of Lake Manyara, which we reached by riding through another forest — chattering monkeys looking down on us like nosy neighbours from the branches — we meet the ugliest creatures I've ever seen.
The marabou storks stand tall like undertakers, wings tucked away like hands behind their backs as they appraise our line of bikers. Sizing us up. We're definitely off the trail here, following tracks around the lake left by some of the wildebeest or gazelles grazing nearby. Fishermen pause in their business to show us their catch — giant, freaky-looking catfish. A good match for the stork.
As much as the cycling has brought us unique encounters with African wildlife, some animals are best viewed from the safety of a large four-wheel drive. Which is how we enter Ngorongoro Crater, the giant volcanic caldera which is home to many of the big beasts of Africa, its towering walls creating a natural "zoo".
After a week of riding, we rest our chafed and wearied backsides, taking in the spectacle of the safari.
Elephants and lions go about their business. Zebras chew the cud and hippos watch us eat our lunch. The hyenas — whose giant jaws seem to spring straight from their densely muscled torsos — sniff for prey. One shakes off the species' reputation for cowardly group attacks by going for a giant black rhinoceros all on his own. They're seriously mean-looking animals.
Jambo to you, mate! For once, I'm glad we left the bikes at home.
Getting there: Etihad flies from Auckland to Dar es Salaam via their hub in Abu Dhabi.
Details: Intrepid's 13-day Cycle Tanzania tour starts at $4080.