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Natron Schmatron

Tanzania 08 – 10/06/2012

We had returned to pick up our motorbike to the crumbling old customs in Bagamoyo

Our mood – even if we were returning from the stunning Zanzibar – was crumbling as well. To top the list of gear that has been slowly decaying to bits (tent, mattresses, clothing etc), in Bagamoyo we had new wounds to lick. Our MacBook and 24 mm Canon lens had been damaged, after an unfortunate incident that involved a concrete slab. Camera appears to be ok. We duct taped the lens, but there even hand held it will focus one out of maybe fifteen attempts. A small disaster we have yet to come to terms with, now that vagabonding has tempered with our attachment to material things. But these things were tough to get.

Blogging, documenting and taking photos have been all integral to our journey across Africa. If we are to continue doing so, we must find a replacement laptop and lens. As you already know, this adventure is self-funded and we never planned that other people somehow support our travels. But after 1 year on the road we must look  for the cheapest way to replace these two essential tools.

So. Maybe you know retailers or dealers who might be interested in offering a hefty discount or even sponsorship to us? Maybe you’ve enjoyed reading this blog and even if you’ve been saving all year for summer holiday you might still consider contributing, if you can, something towards covering the cost of the broken bits. … If so, please get in touch, any information/support is very, very much appreciated indeed. It is also why for a while there will be less photos in this report and why you can now see the dreaded paypal ‘donate’ button in the menu. Hopefully you will not see it for long, but if you decide to click it, your support will not remain unrewarded. We have selected 5 photos representing 5 special moments in our round Africa trip. For any donation of min. 20 Euro, we will post from Bucharest the photo of your choice, printed on B5 format and signed.

[highlight color=’#393939′ background_color=’#ccff00′]Update: THANK YOU[/highlight]
Many heartfelt thanks to all who generously donated:

Intercapital Invest (Romania)
Miron Mihai R (Romania)
Dubravko P (Germany)
Donnie J (U.S.A.)
Eduard V (Romania)
Laurent B (France)
Cristian B (Romania)
Zoltan K (Hungary)
Robert V (U.S.A.)
Ben A (U.S.A.)
Mihai I (Romania)
Margus S (Estonia)
Anton R (Croatia)
Grigorela D (Romania)
Alex P (Romania)
Ilya G (U.S.A.)
Gino R (United Kingdom)
Edward M (United Kingdom)
Bruce B (U.S.A.)
Nicky P (Romania)
Mihai B (Romania)
Nicole R (U.S.A.)
Paris B (Canada)
Dragos R (Romania)
Cabinet Software/ Alex (Romania)
Radu M (Romania)

Africa never forgives a mistake, but we were still in the game. One of the reasons we went west, on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, was to see a soda lake with water nearly as basic as ammonia, that breeds 2.5 million of endangered Lesser Flamingos: Lake Natron. This salty red hell of algae and cyanobacteria is one of Rift Valley’s most environmentally extreme spots. Natron is close to the more famous Ngorongoro crater, which could provide us with the opportunity to ride along another amazing place. It took us a day and a half to arrive there, actually in Moshi, after sleeping a night in a sisal plantation.

Sisal farming is experiencing a revival in Tanzania, once world’s largest grower, now a distant, albeit promising second after Brazil. In the late 19th century, in what was then Tanganyika, seeds were smuggled from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Today over 2 million Tanzanian smallholders are growing sisal, but in the meantime even the economic significance of the plant has changed. Traditionally used to make ropes and twines, the sisal lint is now used to reinforce plastics in car interiors, in roofing materials, piping, and fiberboard. The low grade fibre is even employed in the paper recycling process. Sisal is a promising source for biofuel. Not to mention that the plantations make a nice background for camping.

Road to Arusha

At 5895 m, Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and arguably its most iconic landmark was right in front of us. An impressive sight. At least it would have been if it wasn’t completely hidden behind the thick dark cloudscapes. We took some dirt tracks among lush coffee fields, hoping to find a spot where, if we squinted really well, we could see a shadow in the fog. There’s your Mt. Kilimanjaro, better luck next time.

This guy confirmed that what we could not see was indeed the famous mountain

Mount Meru was a bit more visible.

And later these long  extinct volcanos were a nice backdrop for our freedom

To reach Natron, you need join the good tar leading into the crater. These few miles of 5 star road are populated by innumerable safari jeeps, that stop here and there, so that the tourists can step out and snap Maasai tribesmen and women. If until recent times the nomadic people of Tanzania and Kenya have been discouraged to modernize their way of life, things are now changing. On the way to Ngorongoro one can see dozens if not hundreds of Maasai (or are they?) lining the road, masquerading the traditional attire, waiting or even begging to be photographed for money.

Then we turned right. There’s always something therapeutic about leaving the long straight lines of tarmac and zig zagging among mountains and valleys, helmet flooded in sweat, until you and your bike can finally breathe again.

It was scalding hot, kooky cacti forests sprayed across the vast expanse of mattress-puncturing acacia where few Maasai compounds scattered. These are called Boma, and are inhabited by man and domestic cattle alike. A hut takes 3 days to build: a timber framework is fixed directly into the ground, then a web of branches is interwoven with it, and finally plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine, and ash. The traditional Massai society is patriarchal and polygamist, centered around cattle, the primary source of food.

The occasional Maasai stared vacantly at us as we stopped to contemplate asking permission to take a photo. They were wrapped up in Shúkàs (traditional red and purple plaid blankets) and wore bike tyre flip flops. The Maasai believe that a camera can steal their soul, but since mass tourism has conquered this land, things changed. We already are too shy to shove the amera in someone’s face, most times we prefer to spend some time with the people, interact, introduce ourselves etc. Now there was also the photo-for-money paradigm to negotiate. Nuyara gave us a minute.

The site of world’s largest volcanic caldera stirred our souls. Somewhere beyond it we could guess the Great Open Place of Africa, Serengeti.

We stopped at the edge of this horizonless, dramatic natural arena and gaze not at one, not two, but at three volcanos

We had researched our destination: some travelers had reported Natron to be infested with hasslers, blocked by illegal toll gates. People had been forced to pay hundreds of dollars at gunpoint, escorted from their bushcamp etc. We hoped those reports had been accidental. In Arusha we confirmed with the police and several travel agents that Natron is not a national park, that there should be no fees (except for a 1 Euro community fee in the village), no problems. Then, we arrived at a barrier. Someone had painted ‘15 USD’ at the bottom of a wood board, obviously after it’d been mounted. That was the first ‘toll gate’, so the reports were accurate. We argued in vain, and soon the first dude with AK47 showed up. They told us that there was a second ‘toll gate’, where we should pay 10 USD. So 50 dollars to see the lake. As we were turning back, a bus crammed with locals arrived in front of the barrier, and suddenly a white arm sprung out waving and someone shouted ‘great country!’. Almost instantly the barrier was lowered and more vigilantes and AK47 appeared. The unfortunate man who couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and had to salute us, proved to be a tourist accompanied by a Tanzanian lady. He had a letter from some NGO, that should exempt him from paying the ‘fees’. If he had kept his mouth shut, the bus would have passed through. Everybody started to shout and argue, and it became clear that we will not be allowed thru. It was time to concede that Natron was not meant to happen this time.

Retracing our tracks back to the main road, we still felt good, tripping on hot baked-in chemicals, released off the ground. Nothing in the tranquil and warm landscape that sheltered our last night in Tanzania let us suspect that we were about to pay for all the good times we had had.


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