The appeal of this year's Tour d'EAC is tourism.
At least eight Unesco World Heritage sites, including the ancient cradle of mankind, the Olduvai Gorge, spectacular landmarks and scenery, wildlife and odd gastronomical tastes will be part of the allure when 70 participants -- the majority of them cyclists -- hit the road on August 1, on a circuit that starts and ends in Kampala.
This is the Tour d'EAC 2017, an initiative of Campfire Logs Guild, an adventure youth group that is using its outdoors activities to push the East African Community's integration agenda.
Campfire has released this year's tour itinerary, and it stretches over 4,500 kilometres, spanning the five EAC countries. The safari starts in Kampala, Uganda, and heads to Kenya through the Busia border, and onwards to Tanzania through Nairobi and Arusha, then heads to Dar es Salaam where the circuit turns around to head to Burundi through Dodoma and Tabora and then towards Rwanda and back to Kampala.
The route will take over 45 days, broken by visits to famous historical, cultural and natural attractions in all countries. It will cover 10 sections, each with its own appeal, adventure and tourist sites.
In its second edition, the East African Bicycle Tour (or Tour d'EAC) that was first held in 2016, is aptly themed "Unlocking East Africa's trade and tourism potential through an effective and efficient integration process."
"We thought this is easier and more exciting," says John Bosco Balongo, the director of Campfire Logs Guild talking of the different sections of the route. "It is quite flexible. A person can choose to cycle a section of their interest, instead of the whole tour."
The first of the sections runs from Kampala to the Malaba border post in Busia, and is aptly named the Nile Stalk. On day one, the cyclists will ride to Jinja town, which sits aloft the point where River Nile flows out of Lake Victoria en route to the Mediterranean.
"We actually want to cross the Nile Bridge on foot. We shall get off our bikes and push them across the Nile so that everyone gets a clear view of it," says Mr Balongo.
From Busia, the riders will proceed towards Nairobi, with stopovers in Kisumu, Kericho and Gilgil along the route. But for Ugandans raised in temperatures upwards of 23 degrees Celsius, the Busia-Nairobi route presents a tough test -- the night temperatures in Gilgil for instance can be anywhere between five degrees and freezing.
This is a section named Longonot Sketch, replete with a world heritage site, the Kenya Lake System -- Lakes Bogoria, Nakuru and Elementaita in the Great Rift Valley.
From Nairobi, the tour runs southwards all the way to the EAC capital Arusha, through the section named Maasai Land Plains after the famous Nilotic Maasai people that inhabit this area, and known for their customs, dress and unique relationship with wildlife in national reserves and game parks on both sides of the Kenya-Tanzania border.
Described as a "complex" and very "intriguing ecosystem," the Maasai plains offer one of the world's most important habitat areas for a great variety of wild animals and a fitting safari destination, even for cyclists just riding through.
Next is the section from Arusha to Tanzania's capital city Dar es Salaam, which the organisers of Tour d'EAC have named the Zinjanthropus Discovery, with stops in Moshi, Same, Mombo, Korogwe, Mlandizi and Kibaha, where the riders will interact with the Maasai, Wachagga, Wapare, Wasambaa, Wazigua and Wazaramo communities.
For the young cyclists, the Arusha segment of the safari is so many things rolled into one: It involves a visit to the seat of the regional bloc's capital, the museum, great sightseeing, and it neighbours the cradle of mankind at Olduvai Gorge.
On July 17, 1959, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey discovered a well preserved hominin cranium at Olduvai Gorge that was later carbon dated to approximately 1.75 million years ago and named the Zinjanthropus boisei skull. Olduvai Gorge is located within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, west of Arusha.
After the exertions of the Arusha region, the cyclists will head towards Dar es Salaam, a section that offers major landscape features like Mount Kilimanjaro, the Pare hills, the Usambara mountains, Wami River and the coastal or lowland plains as the safari rolls into Dar es Salaam.
Dar will offer a short break and the riders will turn around for the return journey westwards, on a stretch that is named Sector Bigobyamugenyi, from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma, Tanzania's seat of government. This section offers yet another natural World Heritage Site to savour - the 5.1 million hectare Selous Game Reserve that straddles the regions of Lindi, Morogoro, Mtwara, Pwani and Ruvuma, with vegetation that varies from dense thickets to open grasslands.
The Selous Reserve is one of the largest remaining wilderness areas in Africa, with undisturbed ecological and biological processes, and is inhabited by a diverse range of wildlife: Elephants, black rhino, cheetahs, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles.
This section is followed by the Magufuli Trail, arguably the longest stretch of the tour, running from Dodoma to Kazuramimba, east of Lake Tanganyika. Over the course of this section and on a few stops, the cyclists will be treated to the Tanzanian cuisine of chicken legs, heads and soup.
"There is a lot to explore," says Mr Balongo. "It's not just about cycling. There is sightseeing, bonding, exposure, knowledge acquisition, interaction, fun, adventure, challenge and so much more."
With their tummies filled, knees and ankles well lubricated by the oily chicken recipes, the riders will pedal on into Burundi, on a section named Face Off Tanganyika.
Cyclists enjoy a Tanzanian speciality of chicken legs and soup. PHOTO | COURTESY
The Virgin Hills Challenge
The ride from the Burundian capital of Bujumbura to Kigali is named The Virgin Hills Challenge - alluding to the perceived religious apparition on the Kibeho Hills of the Virgin Mary. Aptly tagged as a challenge for cyclists, Mr Balongo says of all the 10 sections, the Virgin Hills stands out because "there are lots of hills" and he believes "participants will not find it easy."
Apparently, there is a lot of action around this area that will test the cyclists' endurance. The section will test pedalling up steep slopes and valleys, making control of speed and causing extreme exhaustion.
But if the riders find the Virgin Hills straining, from a purely tourist perspective, the next section Dare the Gorilla from Kigali to Mubende is deemed the pick of the route.
"We will be going through the gorilla trail in Rwanda, then Bwindi, to Ishaka, to Kasese via Fort Portal. The gorilla section is purely touristic," says Mr Balongo.
This section is also noted for its incredible length. It takes the riders through a number of other attractions such as the Bunyaruguru Craters in western Uganda, the Equator crossing in Kasese district, the Rwenzori Mountain region and Queen Elizabeth National Park.
On the home stretch of the itinerary is the Nakayima Wonders section from Mubende to Kampala. Nakayima is a tree in the Mubende area, named after a princess who resided there; it is mystic, sacred and has existed for an estimated 450-600 years. Besides its touted healing powers for all manner of ailments, what spooks tourists are the 18 "rooms" inside the tree that the guide takes visitors through.
Idealists in pursuit of good
Critics argue that with EAC partner states pushing disparate agendas -- Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda on the one hand are pursuing a faster integration, while Tanzania remains cagey and Burundi oscillates between conflict and post-conflict while South Sudan is in pre-genocide mode -- the bloc's integration train is off the rails. It would take an idealist to argue that this train can be put back on track: Campfire Logs Guild represent that idealism.
Can cycling unite EAC?
While cycling through Tanzania in last year's challenge, the team separately met two Europeans -- a German named Lewis and a Hungarian; both were also cycling through the bloc, but their views on EAC differed widely.
"We met Lewis between Itobo and Kahama. He was coming from Dar es Salaam. He was so excited to see us and about the cycling idea; he promised to follow us up in 2017. We are in touch and hope to meet him in Dar es Salaam this year," one cyclist said.
The Hungarian, on the other hand, had a very negative perception of the EAC, saying it just existed in name, and that in reality, with some member states pursuing different interests and others looking inward, "We will never see the region's integration realised."
But EAC spokesman Richard Owora differs. "Tanzania is eager to learn from Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, which launched a single tourist visa in 2014, while Burundi is supportive of the programme," he said.
"To fully implement the single tourist visa, there is a need for a technical mechanism, especially computerisation of services at the one-stop border posts. It is anticipated that all partner states will soon implement the single tourist visa," said Mr Owora.
The cycling safari will take cyclists through the bloc's best natural attractions; they will interact with at least 36 ethnic communities and get to hear more than 80 languages and dialects, although Swahili is the most used language along the route, with the exception of Uganda.
Tour d'EAC 2017 is funded to the tune of $125,500 by GIZ. (The German development foundation.)
The cycling sections at a glance
Section 1: The Nile Stalk (Kampala - Busia):
The cyclists are crossing the Nile, hence a fitting name for the section. Riders will have a stopover, to visit the source of the Nile and proceed to their resting point in Jinja town (80km east of Kampala).
Section 2: Longonot Sketch (Busia - Nairobi)
This is because of Longonot Mountain and the view of the Rift Valley along the route. You know a sketch is something not so defined, and if you go along this route, don't expect it all to be smooth. It's sketchy and you will have the best view of the Rift Valley in east Africa. The cyclists also intend to visit the hot water springs at Mahi Mahiu.
Section 3: Maasai Land Plains (Nairobi - Arusha)
An experience through Maasai land. Organisers say, "We will eat with them, spend a night with them and interact with them. And if you look at the terrain, it's very plain with no hills; you only pedal against the wind that blows in the opposite direction. This stretches all the way up to Arusha." The cyclists will have two stopovers at Kajiado in Kenya and Longido in Tanzania.
Section 4: Zinjanthropus Discovery (Arusha - Dar es Salaam)
"It is believed that the first human settlement is found in Tanzania. We intend to visit the museum while in Arusha. We are also planning to camp there, but haven't been in touch with the management of this historical site. We would have called it Kilimanjaro, but Kilimanjaro has already made its name. This historical place needs publicity."
Section 5: Bigo Bya Mugenyi (Dar es Salaam - Dodoma)
Bigo bya Mugenyi is known for its Stone Age history. The cyclists intend to visit this historical site.
Section 6: Magufuli Trail (Dodoma - Kazuramimba)
President Magufuli has been a revelation during his close to two-year presidency. Currently he is the EAC Summit Chair (set to hand over to Uganda President Yoweri Museveni on May 20th 2017). The cyclists will meet Mr Magufuli in the Tanzanian capital.
Section 7: Face Off Tanganyika (Kazuramimba - Bujumbura)
"We shall be riding along Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world; it should be fun even stopping to swim for a minute," says orgnaiser John Balongo.
Section 8: The Virgin Hills (Bujumbura - Kigali)
"Oh my God, who doesn't know the beauty these two nations [Burundi and Rwanda] possess? They are full of contours, hills, mountains, beautiful scenery and above all, the smiles of the beautiful ladies in both countries. you just can't miss it out," adds Mr Balongo.
Section 9: Dare the Gorillas (Kigali - Mubende)
"Here we are talking about the gorilla territory. We are riding through, Rwanda Gorillas, and the Ugandan climbing gorillas. We also intend to penetrate the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi, then through Pygmy territory. It's a daring terrain," adds Mr Balongo.
Section 10: Nakayima Wonders (Mubende - Kampala)No one would want to miss out on Nakayima Hill. There is a wondrous tree called Nakayima that everyone should at least come and see.