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Correction to This Article
The article about biking and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro misspelled the Swahili phrase for "slowly," the caution given to hikers there. It is "pole pole," not "poly-poly."
The Biking Issue

Father-Son Biking/Climbing Trek Ends at Top of Kilimanjaro

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By Lee Gutkind
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sam had been barreling up the highway when he lost control of his bike and smashed into a bank of gravel. It was near the end of our 250-mile bike trek in Tanzania and two days before we were supposed to start an ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro.

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Now he sat slumped in a wheelchair in the casualty ward at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, his back raw and bleeding and his ankle soaked in blood. And I was seriously questioning my judgment -- and my sanity -- for having committed us to such a crazy experience.

Our 17-day Surf to Summit excursion, run by Ibike (sponsored by the International Bicycle Fund), a Seattle-based nonprofit organization devoted to non-motorized transportation, had promised a unique experience: "fascinating visits to development projects, national parks, traditional villages," according to the group's Web site. This was exactly what Sam and I had wanted: to explore somewhere new and exotic, to stretch ourselves physically, to immerse ourselves in a part of the world about which we knew very little -- and to have one last adventure together, father and son, before Sam started college.

The casualty ward in a developing country 7,000 miles from home was more adventure than I had anticipated. And when the doctors explained that the gash in Sam's ankle could not be stitched and that plastic surgery would perhaps be required, I was prepared to give up our dream midway.

But from the beginning, Sam had set his mind on conquering Africa's highest mountain. He intended to give it a try -- no matter what.

* * *

Surf to Summit began with three days on Zanzibar island, 15 miles across the Indian Ocean from Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam. There we explored historic Stone Town, sailed to Prison Island, famous for its gigantic turtles, and went on an interesting half-day "spice tour" by bus. But all eight members of our group had traveled thousands of miles and paid the robber-baron airlines anywhere from $100 to $265 to ship our bikes to Africa, so we were eager to start riding.

Although we ranged in age from 18 to 68, we shared a desire to travel on two wheels, to make a more direct connection with the land and the people and to exert strength and energy -- and sometimes sweat and tears -- toward that end. "I don't want to see Africa from a windshield," said Chris Maier, a policy planner from Alexandria. Ibike and our guide, Jerome Mwamboneke, had promised a course that would get us to the bone and sinew of the heartland, where tourists rarely ventured. And the first couple of days in the lush Usambara Mountains, the "Switzerland of Tanzania," where the biking began, fulfilled that promise.

Lushoto, the main town in the Usambara district, is famous for its vegetables and spices, which we saw in the sprawling marketplace we passed through while heading to the Irente Children's Home, an orphanage in the Usambara Highlands. The African marketplace doubles as a vast dollar store for clothes, furniture and small appliances. We bought diapers and baby formula and a few toys for the kids at the home, mostly infants and toddlers from families decimated by AIDS or poverty. Though Lushoto is a relatively developed area, the contrast between the traditional lifestyle and the emerging new world is sometimes stunning. The day we visited the orphanage, neighbors chased a suspected burglar through town, then beat him on the main street while the police watched impassively.

There are many schools in and around Lushoto, and children in uniforms, many of whom know English, are part of the landscape. Mostly they wanted to high-five us. When we "mzungus," or foreigners, offered a traditional hello in Swahili -- "jambo" -- they liked to show off and reply, to our surprise, "Good afternoon."

As we ventured deeper into the interior, children would emerge everywhere, staring at us with intense curiosity, but from a distance, at least temporarily. Jo Spenser, a striking woman with long blond hair who worked as an elementary school teacher in Dubai, was our Pied Piper. She could use sign language and a few basic words of English to organize little songs that some of the children would sing with her. She also took pictures with her digital camera and showed the excited children the images. Wary adults would also emerge for picture-taking. When I explained to one man that I could not give him his photo, he asked: "You put me in there. Why can't you take me out?"

More intriguing than digital cameras to villagers were our flashy modern bikes with their knobby tires, padded seats, panniers and a plethora of gears. Jo and Chris Maier and Chris Pell, a banker from the United Kingdom, rode well-equipped mountain bikes, while Pell's wife, Emma, had a good street bike outfitted with mountain bike tires.


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