All roads have purpose. A raison d'être. All roads tell a story.
There are stories of hope: the roads carved through the American West, in pursuit of wealth and riches. There are stories of despair: paths trodden in flight of something human or something natural, of war or desertification, of plague. There are roads borne of curiosity and wonder, pleasure drives and hiking trails. There are roads with beautiful beginnings.
But most roads tell the same story: the story of conquest. Of exploitation. One's hope, after all, may come at another's expense. One's road, carved in the name of Providence, may be an unwitting or unconcerned gash through someone else's existence. Roads, above all, move people and things from one place to another place. But in doing so, they often swallow up the places and the people and the things in between.
We learn the story of the TanZam Highway slowly, day by day. Clues present themselves to the observant traveler. Green markings sprayed hastily onto houses. Red Xs blotted onto each and every road sign. There's the Chinese face looking on from beneath a face mask as Tanzanian men hack away at the blackened earth. There's a careful consideration of the name, TanZam, and an answer right on the map, if one knows where to look.
All roads have purpose, and most purpose is conquest. Building a road consumes more than just paint and bitumen.
This road, the TanZam, it connects Tanzania and Zambia. Specifically, ultimately, it connects the northern regions of Zambia with the eastern port of Dar es Salaam.
Northern Zambia is awash in copper. Abundant, mismanaged, it is a vital resource being sold at a steal to foreign investors. Copper is needed for many things. The bigger the country, the more items it manufactures, the more copper a country needs. A nation of over one billion people, presiding as the world's industrial leader, needs much copper.
The Chinese have come to Africa in the way the British and the Belgians and the Dutch and the Portuguese and the French and the Spanish and the Italians and the Germans and the Persians and the Arabs and the Omani and the rest have come before them. A little more peacefully, perhaps, with less gunpowder and fewer bibles, but with the same basic mission. Self-interest. Take things; take them for your own.
There is plenty of copper but not plenty of vehicular capacity on the old TanZam. The widening of the road, it will allow this copper to be dug out of the earth in northern Zambia, where the land is now dead and the air putrid and the people wholly dependent on foreign cash. It will enable this copper to be removed from Africa, in the manner of so many precious resources before it, expeditiously and permanently, by way of big sooty barges in the harbors of Tanzania's coast. From there, it will sail for China, dry feed for the hungry, snorting factories of Shenzhen.
The Zambian government reaps the rewards of these shoddily-negotiated contracts. The Tanzanian government reaps the rewards of new roads and a busier port. Those with cars benefit, too. But not everyone wins.
All along the roadside, for hundreds of kilometers, we have seen these red and green markings. Every single sign with a red X through it. Every roadside house and hut and shop and store with a green X, a few arrows, and 30M scrawled in spray paint on walls and doorways. Like some biblical reckoning from a modern-day Exodus.
It's not until Mikumi that we learn what these symbols mean. The Chinese contractors and their workers, with the consent of the Tanzanian government, have put them here. Mind you, not with the permission or knowledge of the people who's signs and homes these are. Were. A red X, splayed atop your roadside sign; it means your sign is too close to the new, wider road. It has to go. A green X, painted onto your home or business: it means your place, be it a decade or a century old, is too close to the new, wider road. It, too, must go, and you as well.
There are thousands of these Xs across Tanzania. Tens of thousands, probably. It is evident that the people eeking out a living on the roadside do not have the means nor organization to protest, to resist. Within the next few years, the road will swallow them all.
But hey, it'll take a little less time to get to Dar.
Anyway. We piece these final clues together with the help of a friendly Swiss lodge owner outside Mikumi. We arrive there, after a few days of gorgeous cycling through lush valleys and camping in baobab forests, dripping wet, caught riding in the first storm of our trip. We have rain gear, of course, but it's far too hot and humid to wear. We're soaked through, and in need of a wash, and Lauren's knee has been bothering her. We take the rest of the day off.
When we wake up the next morning, Lauren's knee is still in pain. The proprietor, taking a little pity on a pair of sopping cyclists, and having gone on a bike tour of his own across Australia back in his youth, has kindly given us a covered campsite under a big mango tree for half-off. It's thus affordable for our meager budget, and nice enough to enjoy another day out of the saddle.
It's Thanksgiving. That means nothing to anyone here, but we treat ourselves to a simple meal at the lodge restaurant and celebrate on our own. We take another two days' rest while Lauren continues to recover. I head into town to get us some vegetables, and we spend a few days cooking meals, reading and writing and catching up with friends over the phone, swimming in the crisp blue pool, and marveling at the strange assortment of bugs that visit our campsite.
We're at the very edge of Mikumi National Park. A few kilometers from here is a vast expanse of land teeming with elephants and giraffes and lions and wildebeest and hyena and plenty of smaller mammals too. There are frequent elephant and lion sightings right on the main road. We've been cautioned to catch a ride across the park. Or at the very least wait until midday when all the lions are asleep.
We opt for the latter. After three-hundred kilometers of cycling along "lion-infested" roads in Botswana, we're confident we can cross these fifty kilometers to the other end of the park without incident. Lauren's leg is still in pain, but she's eager to cycle and feels ready enough to manage the distance.
We set off. We pass signs warning about wildlife and listing the fines levied for striking each type of animal with one's car. Kill a giraffe, and that'll cost $15,000. A lion will run you $4,900. Collide with a zebra, and you'll be looking at a bill for $1,200, while running over a baboon, everyone's least favorite animal, is almost worth the expense at just $110. All over, signs beg drivers polepole. Please slow down.
We do the opposite. We're not so worried about killing a lion by going fast as a lion killing us by going slow. We stop as infrequently and quickly as possible and scan the brush on either side for signs of movement.
There is plenty of movement. No lions or elephants or hyena, thankfully, but dozens of less frightening species. We see giraffes, zebra, oryx, impala, steenbok, springbok, vervets, those loathsome baboons, and wildebeest. We startle a family of warthogs on the roadside and swoon as their adorable, pudgy little warthog babies rush for the bushes snorting wildly. We see African buffalo, which are indeed very dangerous (killing about thirty times as many people per year as lions), and resist the urge to stop and marvel. We exit Mikumi, fortunately unscathed.
Lauren's knee is not doing so well. It's going to need more than a few days from cycling. We have plenty of time off the bike planned once we reach the coast. But that's still over two hundred kilometers away.
The road from here to Dar es Salaam is, we're told, not as pleasant as the road whence we came. It's dry and hot and narrow and teeming with out-of-control lorry drivers. The way into the city is sheer chaos. We'd been advised to hitch a ride, and we'd been stubbornly avoiding that advice, but now with Lauren's bum knee it's seeming a more sensible option than either pushing on by bike or hunkering down in some roadside motel for a few weeks until it's doing better.
We stick out our thumbs. Figuratively speaking. Here the sign for hitchhiking is more of a waving motion with an outstretched hand, like you're trying to signal someone to slow down. Which, of course, you are.
We stand on the roadside for the better part of an hour as a storm rolls closer toward us. Just before it seems like it'll envelop us entirely, a friendly man in a massive big rig stops and rolls down his window. I ask if he's going to Dar. He is. I ask if he's going to make it there tonight. He is. I ask if he's willing to let two bikes ride in the back and two worn-down cyclists ride with him in the cabin. He is.
And so we arrive back at the coast of the Indian Ocean, five months since leaving Cape Town, without much ceremony or climax. It takes us seven slow hours to reach the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. It's dark when we part ways with our kind driver, and our rear lights got stolen back in Malawi, so we strap our head torches to our bikes and ride the final twelve kilometers into the city in hectic, overwhelming fashion.
Cassidy and Sarah, the patron saints of our bike journey through Africa, the amazing folks who hosted us in Lusaka, introduced us to our hosts in Lilongwe, invited us to a lakehouse weekend in Nkopola, and more or less cured my malaria, have once again paved our journey forward by linking us up with a friend living in Dar. She has graciously welcomed us to come occupy her spare bedroom, and we arrive at her door, sweaty and frenzied, at near midnight. We lock our bikes outside and haul our panniers upstairs. We don't put them back on our bicycles for the next several weeks.
We spend a few days in Dar. We make meals with Arianna, our terrific host, and explore the bustling city (Lauren loves it; I concur with the widespread consensus that it's far from wonderful). One morning we walk down to the ferry port with our daypacks and board a boat for Zanzibar. We take a dalla-dalla to the north end of the island. Lauren cashes in some hotel points for a ritzy oceanfront room at a fancy Hilton, and we spend a few days sitting on the beach and floating in the calm turquoise waters and watching the sun sink into the sea.
We ride a second dalla-dalla back to where the ferry dropped us off, in Stone Town. It is a maze of weathered rock and narrow alleys. We whittle away another few days wandering the city's labyrinthine streets. Eating things and watching sunsets. Walking, sitting, peeking into dimly-lit curio shops.
And then we board a ferry back to Dar es Salaam. We enjoy a few more lovely evenings with Arianna. We take a taxi to a department store and procure a pair of large cardboard boxes. In Arianna's front yard, we take the wheels and pedals and handlebars and baskets off our bicycles, and we cram everything, the bikes and the panniers and all our worldly possessions for these past five months, into these boxes. We take three rolls of packaging tape and seal them tightly closed.
In the early morning of December 6, well before dawn, we load the boxes into the back of a cab. We drive twenty kilometers to a gated compound of hangars and runways and planes and suitcases. We surrender our boxes to a woman behind a counter and load ourselves onto one of these planes. An engine roars to life.
We're lifted into the air, and we fly away.