I never knew how massive the giraffes really were until they were right in front of me. The African sky, endlessly blue, stretched behind the giraffes as they ambled across the trail in front of me, framed by my dusty handlebars. And to think that it was a single photo that brought me here.

While casually perusing the Internet six months ago, I stumbled across a picture of classic African scenery: umbrella-shaped acacia trees lining a sandy single track. What drew my attention, however, was that this African landscape included a row of shiny mountain bikes laid across the trail.

Escape Adventures, run by New Zealanders John Etherington and Mandy Richards, offers a bicycle trip starting in Nairobi, Kenya and ending some 400 miles later in the coastal town of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. And so with a glimpse of John and Mandy’s photos and an outline of the trip, I found myself flying 48 hours to Nairobi with not much more than a helmet, a sleeping bag and a few jerseys.

The Motley Crew

We were quite an international group with two of us Americans, two Canadians, an English couple, four New Zealanders and one Kenyan.

As Etherington explained, traveling through a country by bicycle instead of whizzing by in a jeep would allow us to truly see, smell, hear and feel the land that we were traveling through.

And then there were the people. As we set out on dirt trails that would take us through rural Kenya, we began to grow accustomed to the warm and diverse welcomes of Africa’s people. As well as the customary Jambo (“hello”), we were greeted with enthusiastic Karibu (“welcome”) and squeals of joy, mostly from children, but sometimes even the adults couldn’t contain their obvious joy at having us foreigners roll quietly through their farmland and small villages. The locals were just as fascinated by us as we were by them. Whenever we stopped, we were surrounded by curious stares and smiles, our tires squeezed, our brakes inspected. When they would see us puffing up hills, they would exclaim a sympathetic “pole!” (“I’m sorry for your hardship”). Most of them couldn’t understand why us tourists would be bicycling when we could be in an air-conditioned jeep, so the only explanation they could conjure was that we were racing. Thus we were given many thumbs up and “Lance Armstrong” cheers.

We were traveling through land owned by the indigenous Masai tribes of Kenya, who are well-known for dressing in bright cloth and many beads. They live in traditional dung huts and the warriors carry large spears to help protect their village’s valuable cows, goats and burros. The Masai live in harmony with the land and the animals, even when we stopped for a rest in what seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, Masai emerged from the bush to study us. Our mountain bikes, bright jerseys and shiny helmets often elicited squeals of laughter from people who had never seen white foreigners, much less cyclists. One pair of children ran terrified from us screaming “mzungus!” (“foreigners”) while their parents simply watched and laughed.

We rode along quiet dusty roads among herds of zebra, gazelle, giraffe and ostrich until we reached the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, the stratamount that rises 19,340 feet above Amboseli National Park, a fenceless park known especially for its elephants and other wildlife. We drove through the park to avoid running into the elephants, pythons and hyenas that loped away from our support vehicle.

Our camp that night happened to be close to a den of hyenas that made their presence known with their distinctive whooping as they stalked by our tents. Seeing as we had heard several stories of hyenas mauling people, we were quite apprehensive and when one poked its sharp nose at my tent wall, I didn’t hesitate to give that snout a good smack, which sent him readily on his way.

The dawn brought zebras snorting and stampeding by our tents as the hyenas circled them. A bull elephant ambled quietly by the camp as the sun lit the summit of Kilimanjaro. After an early morning game drive, we continued our ride across the dry lakebed of Lake Amboseli. Herds of zebra and gazelle scattered from our path and galloped towards the shimmering heat mirage that danced in the distant veldt.

After a sweaty ride, we set up camp quite literally in the middle of nowhere next to a massive rock, Solomon’s Rock, named in honor of the chief of the small Masai manyatta, or village, located on the other side of the rock.

We spent our evening sitting on the rock, watching the sun set and Masai herdsmen bringing their livestock in for the evening. As darkness set in, Solomon and two of his warriors came to sit around our fire. Solomon had nearly perfect English and patiently answered our many questions about his culture. Because we were thick in hyena territory, we hired the two warriors to stand guard all night around the campfire. Although we heard hyenas and jackals near the camp, the flickering fire and whispers of our guards kept the predators at bay.

The next morning, we visited the manyatta and stepped inside one of the small dung huts, a rather claustrophobic but fascinating experience nonetheless. We then visited the local school. About 20 kids were clustered under an acacia tree with an acacia thorn fence around them. They delighted in our presence, singing for us and gathering around our digital cameras to giggle at the photos of themselves.

Into the Great Rift

The next few days of biking brought us over the border into Tanzania and through many villages, allowing us to weave through quaint dirt streets, avoiding chickens, cows and children. By now, we had become accustomed to the biking and were able to do a 55-mile day before lunch, grinding through patches of sand and rock with a confidence we didn’t have at the beginning.

With our new strength, we flew by plane into the Great Rift Valley, a 6,000-mile crack in the Earth’s crust that stretches from Lebanon to Mozambique. The valley was filled with fertile farmland and tall green mountains that rose in front of us, one of which was a huge crater rising to 8,000 feet.

We took a day off to rest our sore muscles and took a game drive in this crater, known as the famous Ngorongoro Crater. With a diameter of 12 miles, it’s the largest unbroken caldera in the world. It boasts 30,000 animals, as well as the bones of some of our earliest ancestors. We observed cheetahs, hippos, lions, rhinos, cape buffalo, zebra and countless other animals in a place so often described as Eden.

From the crater, we cycled on to the Usambara Mountains where we climbed to our campsite at 5,000 feet. Until then we had been biking through the dry savannah that is visible in all those National Geographic documentaries. Now we were climbing into lush, cool forest past banana trees and rushing waterfalls.

The mountains were dotted with numerous villages and, once again, we were treated like rock stars, often interrupting whole schools as the kids came running to see us. The male half of our Canadian couple had grown quite scruffy and was occasionally greeted with excited shouts of “Chuck Norris!” Apparently even the villagers of Northern Tanzania had exposure to action B-movies and mistook him for an action star. Our “Chuck Norris” was soon giving autographs to throngs of excited kids.

From the mountains we dropped down exhilarating single track and emerged from the forest, heading towards the coastal town of Dar es Salaam. The road to the Indian Ocean passed through Bagamoyo (“lay down your heart”), one of Africa’s old slave ports, named in honor of the slaves. As we rode along in tropical heat, we tried to imagine what the slaves must have felt as they walked towards an unknown future.

Although it was quite warm, the sight of the Indian Ocean glimmering in the distance kept us going. Situated by the ocean, Dar is a bustling city with a prominent Muslim influence. Its name means “Haven of Peace,” a title that suits it well.

We pitched our tents a few yards from the ocean at idyllic Kipepeo Beach outside of town. Although the nearby mosques started their first calls for prayer around 4:30 am, the sound of their chanting was so peaceful it was impossible not to enjoy it. As I rose to watch my last African sunrise, I could see Dhows, the classic Arabic wooden sailboats with triangular sails, coming in for the day.

The fishermen go out at night and light their lanterns to attract mosquitoes, which in turn attracts fish. Their twinkling lights added to the multi-colored sunrise behind them. I found myself surprisingly sad to leave what we called the “land of many welcomes.”

As I sat on the beach that pink and orange morning, a man came along riding a camel. Although he was silhouetted against the bright sunrise, I could see his bright grin as he glanced at our bikes lined up in the campsite. “Safari Salaama” (“peaceful journey”), he said with a quiet smile and continued on his way.

It was then that I knew I would be back. Safari Salaama indeed.