31 March 2009

Riding to an Oasis (Chemka Springs Ride)

There are several places in Northern Tanzania that are like an oasis in the desert . We decided to ride to this one one Sunday morning.

From movies we know that oasis are surrounded by dry country or desert, making us appreciate them more. This one is no different.

Riding through this dry country we had incredible scenery. For those of you who don't know, that is Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. And yes the glaciers are noticeably diminishing thanks to all of us humans.

Kikoletwa Springs.
Northern Tanzania doesn't have an abundance of water. There are a number of small rivers on the big mountains but only when in high flood could you swim in them if you dared. There are some lakes but bilharzia and crocodiles are an issue. That is why Chemka Springs is a popular weekend spot for expatriates from Arusha and Moshi.
The bigger area is Kikoletwa but the village where the popular spring is located is called Chemka. Chemka means to boil in (ki)Swahili. It is 65 km away by car, due east of Kilimanjaro Airport, on the flat plains below Kilimanjaro Mountain. Most people drive there by going to Boma Ngombe town and then heading straight south. It is an amazing sight to see large springs in this dry plain.

As I mentioned it is one of the few places in northern Tanzania where you can swim in natural water. There is a debate about whether there are crocodiles there . Ten years ago a young woman tourist died there, supposedly mauled by a croc. The villagers have told me that she was drunk and fell in and drowned and floated down the river and was cut up by rocks and branches. I think crocs could live there but the water is too clean and the villagers want the income from picnickers and campers and they must work hard to keep them out. The local boys swim there. However it is often on my mind and makes me a bit jumpy swiming there with my daughter. (After posting this I was looking at it and realizied that the first picture is not the spring source but below the dam and definitely has crocs, so don't swim below the suspension bridge.)

During the first part of the last century a German coffee farmer dug some long ditches that flow into a small weir and then a hydro plant. He used this power for his coffee processing plant. During the British colonial period they enlarged on it. By the time all the springs come together it is a fair sized river. The springs have been protected for hydro power. The hydroelectric plant packed up 15 years ago but it is an interesting place to visit, a couple of kilometres from the campsite at the biggest spring.

Thomas and I met before 6am at one of the corners of Arusha Town. We rode through the main street some moments before light. Some people were stirring, mostly people returning from morning prayers.

We took the old highway which is a smooth dirt road to Usa River. The sun rose. There we stayed on a very small track paralleling the highway. Eventually I figured it was faster just to get on the highway for 15 km and get to the KIA turn.

Thomas did not like the highway but it was less than an hour until we were on a gravel road and then tracks like this. I have ridden this once alone and have an idea of which tracks to take.

Eventually the grass land end and we go through huge flood plains, too salty and prone to flood for grass or agriculture.

Suddenly you come to patches of trees showing where the springs are. The spring is coming out of a hole in the ground below me. You can swim into the hole by holding onto the rocks on the bottom. The current is usually too strong to swim against it where it comes out. It is crystal clear and not warm or cold.

We ride to the old power station and check out the suspension bridge and marvel at the amount of water in our dry country.

We turn around and a few hours later are at the highway. Thomas has a driver waiting and as long as they are burning up the fossil fuels I take the ride back to Arusha.


  1. This place is very cool. I just might have to come out again so I can see it. Don't know about the suspension bridge. I don't enjoy bouncy bridges anymore. The 2 suspension bridges on the Wonderland trail had me worried before heading out. Since there were no other hikers there, I could cross S-L-O-W-L-Y with no bouncing. :-) Byrna

  2. What an amazing lifestyle you have! I have been to Arusha a couple of times but obviously so much more to see.