African Odyssey - Bike Magic

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African Odyssey

My first impression as I walked off the plane, and into the arrival lounge
at Nairobi airport was “It should be hotter than this”. Hot temperatures or
otherwise was soon forgotten when we were met by Clive and Jim from
Worldwide Journeys, the travel company who organise and run the tours for
Scope, from hiking treks up Kilimanjaro to white water rafting down the

The plan was simple, 70 people cycling 400 kilometres in 5 days. Logistics
were split between the guides providing route advice, encouragement and a
number of support vehicles and the Masai who would make/break the camps each
day, and cook the communal dinner each night. The riding was to be a mixture
of sand and rocky trails linked with blacktop averaging a distance of 70
kilometres per day. But this is Africa, and nothing is ever simple.

After the three and a half hour coach journey from Nairobi airport to our
hotel at Naro Moru I don’t think any of us were ready for what was in
store -relentless and drenching tropical rain. Although the body of the
group had rooms in the hotel the over spill saw, my roomy and I allocated a
tent. In the afternoon we assembled to select our bikes. They were brand new
hybrid types with front suspension, as heavy as a hod full of house bricks
and as dry as a temperance bar in Tripoli. Being newly delivered from the
suppliers every bike needed a full going over with the spanners and allen
keys, so it wasn’t a surprise when problems caused by loose fittings
continued to manifest for days into the ride.

After setting up the bikes we
adjourned to the bar and substituted the planned “acclimatisation ride” with
several “acclimatisation lagers” by a roaring fireplace. Dinner and a
briefing came at eight followed by more Tusker beers. Staggering back to my
tent in the cool of the evening I will freely admit my thoughts were mostly
“what the hell am I doing here?”.

The following morning the wake up call was at six sharp. After a hearty
breakfast we congregated at the entrance to the hotel. Sun lotions were
applied and there was a definite air of excitement. The ground was still
thick with mud from the rains, which had continued through the night. This
was not the weather I had been expecting. At nine we set off reaching the
main road within minutes. After ten minutes of road riding up a gentle
gradient the full impact of the altitude hit us, with even the fittest
riders gasping for air. I remember looking behind me at the slight incline I
had just climbed in disbelief of the oxygen debt I now had to repay.

On reaching the off road section we came upon the first real test of riding
skill. The overnight rains had made the trail thick and slippery with a soup
of red sticky mud. Changing direction was almost impossible, the correct
line had to be planned well in advance. Any misjudgement would almost
certainly result in a face full of best Kenyan topsoil. After some miles the
trail became dry and stony, conducive to getting a good tear on. At lunch we
stopped by the roadside, catching sight of three Colobus monkeys as they
leapt from a tree. These trails continue through the day until we reached
our first nights proper camp at Ngobit.

We rolled into camp around five that afternoon feeling tired but worthy. The
tents had been pitched by the Masai and hot mushroom soup was on the table.
Next came the novel experience of a field shower, a black polythene bag of
water with a nozzle at the bottom laid in the sun all day and then suspended
from a pole over a four sided tarpaulin cubicle. It works better than it
sounds. Dinner was a hearty affair of beef casserole and vegetables cooked
by the Masai over an open fire and served in the open sided marquee. The
locals provided a field bar where your could buy cold beer or cold beer. Add
some new friends to the equation and a good time was had by all.

Six o’clock the next morning came around very soon. I had got to bed very
late, around 12.30, as I had been mending a puncture by torchlight with
Dave, my riding buddy of the day. Dave is a civil servant with The Office of
Fair Trading from Dulwich and general all round good guy. “Puncture” was to
become the word of the week. Some riders suffered six punctures in one day,
mainly due to the vicious acacia thorns. Before the end of the ride I heard
tales of riders who were up to seventeen punctures for the tour. I had none
for the entire ride (Engage “smug mode”).

We set off with an air of bonhomie fuelled by a sense of yesterdays’
achievement. What we did not know at that time was that, for most of us, we
were in for the hardest days’ ride of our lives.

The trail climbed a rocky path for several miles up to the stony plains,
which stretched out in all directions for as far as the eye can see. The
Oldoinyo Lesatima Mountains formed the backdrop to the scenery as we crossed
the plains. The riding was fairly easy at this point so Dave and I exchanged
banter as we rode along, generally getting to know each other. Along the
trail of the morning we met up with Paul, a painter and decorator from
Derby. Paul and I hit it off instantly, which I found interesting, as he had
been the one person I had singled out on the first day as “I won’t get on
with him”. An object lesson in not judging people by appearances. The trail
became rockier, hillier and far more technical to ride. This was what the
regular bikers had come for.

We stopped for lunch at a shaded watering hole and watched the local Masai
water their sheep and cattle as we chewed our sandwiches and mended the
inevitable punctures.

After the break we saddled up and began to climb the hill up to Ndaragwa.
The trail was volcanic rock, which was best described as “lumpy”. I found
the climb technically difficult and hit “the wall” fairly early on. Although
not killing my spirit, I think this section severely dented it. I rode with
Dave and Paul all that afternoon through the sand, rutted mud and up hill
after hill. I give them every credit for supporting and encouraging me
sufficiently to reach Thompson Falls at 7800 ft above sea level by 5.00 P.M.
Without their help I would not have made it, it’s as simple as that.

By the time I reached the falls I was shattered. After showering, Paul and I
went to the pub. My need for alcohol was, at that point, clinical. All
around me riders were coming down with a rather nasty tummy upset and I had
jokingly said it was due to “not drinking enough Tusker”. I was starting to
believe this myself and so developed the creed “never go to bed the same day
you got up, or sober”. It worked for the entire trip but unfortunately
Tusker is not readily available in Bucks so I am suffering now.

The views of the falls were quite spectacular, marred only by constant
pestering by the local women to “look at my shop”. One particular woman
collared me early on and dragged me half a mile to “her shop” which turned
out to be a small trestle table under a makeshift awning. A swift exit was
made without any purchases.

We set off at 8.30 the next morning with a police escort to assist us on the
busy roads. Kenyan driving is not of the highest standard and fatalities
from accidents with pedestrians and cyclists are commonplace. Paul was
struggling that morning. He had caught something in his eye, probably a
flying insect, and was in considerable pain. We stopped at a roadside
pharmacy where, for £1.20, the pharmacist dispensed eye drops and
painkillers. On receiving the eye drops Paul winced and his toes curled.
“What do you think is in them ?”, I asked Paul. “Battery acid”, he replied
dryly. We pressed on through the township, soon catching up with the rest of
the group. After a few miles the marshals brought us together at a roadside
stop where we posed for the obligatory photo in front of the “Equator” sign.

This days’ ride was, as promised, easier than the struggle that had been day
2. The miles quickly and smoothly rolled under our wheels down the straight
and even tarmac roads. We had an unscheduled one and a half hour water stop
at 11 a.m. as two of the three support vehicles had to ferry riders to
Nairobi hospital due to bugs and heat stroke. For the most part we just sat
in the shade and chilled out, telling tales and comparing sunburns. When the
support vehicles returned we rode on, stopping for a lunch of spicy chicken,
rice and fruit by the roadside. At 2.00 p.m. I set off for the final leg of
the days ride into Gil Gil with Paul and the three guides Joe, Algi and
Brian. These boys were friends of one of the organisers and had been
conscripted from Kingston University to ride the trail and assist wherever
required. All regular riders, they were young and fit, and I knew that Paul
and I were about to go through our paces with them. I don’t think we dropped
below 25 mph for the final 40 minutes as we all took point in turn and
chased down the final miles. At the bottom of the final hill there were four
sleeping policemen at 8 metre intervals. We hit them doing about 30mph and
bunny hopped one after another, turning into Gil Gil Country Club after the
last. The adrenaline was pumping.

The bar at the club normally opened at 5.00 but demand was such that this
was brought forward to 3.00 p.m. by the club owner. After a few beers while
we watched a tropical storm from the comfort of the bar, it was time for a
shower. A small but select group decided to climb the hill near the camp.
This gave us a superb view of the campsite, the country club and the
Aberdare Mountains to the east. After dinner I tried to take a photo of the
stars on a long exposure (which proved not to be worth the effort). It was a
crisp, clear evening and the sky was full of every star that can have ever
been recorded- an awesome sight. A few more beers and a late night
discussion on Kenyan politics with a local in the bar followed to round off
the day.

Morning came around as early as ever. This was going to be a big ride down
to Lake Naivasha and there was an air of urgency to get started. As we set
off we could see a thick carpet of hailstones from the previous days rain by
the side of the road, quite literally “tropical ice”. Shortly after leaving
the cloistered grounds of the country club, with its eighteen hole golf
course and white society who played, we passed through the nearby township.
All the native folk we saw in Kenya were friendly but there was a distinct
feeling of poverty in the townships. The pavements merged with the road,
dogs and goats wandered freely and there was no discernible sense of order.
Where the locals in the bush would wave and shout “Jambo” (Hello), those in
the townships seemed to have more pressing concerns and we often wondered
whether it was safe to stop for photo calls or routine maintenance.

Once through the township this marked the beginning of the Rift Valley
proper. The soil was red and fertile, the rain of the previous night making
the surface both slippery and sticky as before. The main group was split to
give the options of an easier or more challenging ride. We took the
challenging route, climbing the escarpment, which offered the first view of
Mount Longonot. In the morning we saw wild baboons, impala and zebra. With
the abundance of acacia bushes punctures occurred frequently and some riders
had their patience tested to the extreme. That afternoon we rode along the
floor of the Rift passing herds of cows that would have looked more at home
on Jersey. The verdant nature of this area quite staggered me. We finished
the day on road, just Paul and I, riding into camp at Fishermans Lodge on
the shores of Lake Naivasha.

It was around this stage of the ride that I became aware of an air of
discontentment amongst some of the riders. I was having a good time but
others in the group obviously felt that the reality of the tour was not
meeting up with their expectations. Some complained that the riding
conditions were too difficult. I feel that a lot of the resentment was
fuelled by the sickness that was spreading through the camp. Nearly half of
the riders had been subject to bouts of diarrhoea or vomiting and there were
the usual speculations as to the cause; food or water. These were serious
conditions and at least five people were hospitalised during the week. One
particular group whinged constantly to the point where their complaints were
parodied mercilessly. “No one told me it was going to be hot in Kenya”. “No
one told me it was going to be dusty in Africa”. My view, and that of my
riding buddies, was “It’s Africa, not the Costa Brava, it says CHALLENGE on
the T shirts, it’s meant to be hard, so deal with it!”. By contrast my star
of the week had to be Mark. A guy from Bromley about my age with cerebral
palsy who rode virtually the whole distance one handed. He fell off, got
hurt, and got back on again. I don’t think I heard Mark complain once all
tour. After studying the group for the duration of the ride I have come to
the conclusion that physical adversity is a great test of character and will
make a person to either rise to the challenge or fall by the wayside. It is
about inner strength and self belief, – it was about embracing the
environment and all that came with it rather than waiting for someone to
come along and make it better. This was Africa after all.

After the usual post ride ablutions we wandered down to the lakes edge where
we saw a hippo, two storks and a flock of pelicans keeping close quarters on
the lake. We adjourned to the bar and sat outside drinking cold Tusker while
monkeys showered us with debris from the trees above to their great
amusement. I stayed up late, drinking in the bar with the crew from
Worldwide Journeys, the tour organisers. When guards had been lowered by
alcoholic indulgence I heard some frank opinions from them regarding some of
the less than satisfied riders on the trip. After “sufficient” beer I
decided to turn in for the night.

Hells Gate was the penultimate days ride. The descent into the park was hot
and very dusty. We were riding at walking pace in soft dry sand, no easy
feat. The magnificent rock outcrops that flanked the trail were home to
families of eagles. Further down into the park we saw more zebra and
giraffe. We rode on through the sand and climbed up to the picnic area that
offered shade, benches, toilets and cold soft drinks. After lunch and a rest
we began the descent into the gorge.

Such was the steepness of the sides of the gorge we had to carry our bikes
down with help from the Masai. Once at the foot I found the riding hard
work, difficult and at times frustrating. My front wheel kept digging into
the sand and stopping my bike dead. I sat up on the bike and tried to push
off with my foot against a large rock. I looked a total prat as the rock
rolled away and I fell off the bike sideways. The rock was pumice and
weighed only about ten pounds. When I finally did get going my bottle cage
came unfixed and started to jam my chainset. I stopped and ripped it off in
frustration. Things were not going well. Eventually I reached the end of the
gorge and the water stop. We paused for about twenty minutes to take in a
drink (blackcurrant Fanta, hmmm I think I will give that one a miss next
time) and for Paul to pull an acacia thorn from Dave’s foot with his pliers
(nearly got all of it out).

The last leg of the days ride took us along the ubiquitous sandy trail to
camp………or where camp should have been.

A big pile of bags under a tarpaulin and a very large cool box of beer
marked the last nights campsite. No tents, no showers, no latrines. There
had been what was euphemistically called “a breakdown in communications”.
Camp had been pitched…….15 miles up the road. It was 5.30 p.m. when I had
first arrived at camp and about 6.00 p.m. by the time the back of the field
was in. Sundown was 7.10 p.m. sharp. On the equator it is like someone just
turns out the lights, bang it’s gone. In addition to this the clouds were
gathering and the thunder could be heard. At last the moaning minnies in the
group had something to complain about. In recognition of the fact that (a)
They had cocked up, and (b) This could actually become a bit of a problem,
the crew plied us with free beer until the tents etc. arrived. At 6.30 p.m.
the truck rolled up with “camp”. We all pitched in (no pun intended) and by
7.00 p.m. every tent was up and the air of mild panic that had prevailed an
hour earlier was quelled.

I still hadn’t had a wash and was feeling decidedly unclean so I rustled up
a bucket of hot water from the field kitchen. I took myself 100 yards out
into the bush and stripped off for a welcome rub down with a moist cloth.
Who needs a power shower anyway?

The beer was free all night. I’m sure that helped our creative flow as we
wrote our contribution to the Gala evening performance that evening, a
tongue in cheek dig at the crew leader Clive to the tune of “My Way”. And
then to bed, late as ever.

The last days riding was a strange affair. I set off from camp with Paul and
Dave, we carried our bikes from the tents to the trails to avoid the Devils
Claw thorns. Riding the trail there was a feeling of disbelief that it was
our last day in the saddle. I remember thinking “I could just go on and on”.
For the first two or three days the soreness in my bum and thighs as we set
off in the morning had been quite distracting but as the week came to an end
climbing on the bike every morning just became the most natural thing.

We crossed a vast expansive plain before reaching the road that was to take
us the last 8 miles to the finish line. 2 miles short of the finish we
stopped to watch and photograph a herd of giraffe at relatively close
quarters. Inquisitive animals, it was difficult to decide who was studying

I crossed the finish line with Paul. We had met on day two and ridden with
each other for the remainder of the tour. Photos were taken and cold beer
was drunk in celebration. After stripping down the bikes and snatching a
quick picnic lunch we boarded the buses for the journey back to Nairobi. As
we trundled along the potholed highway I sat next to the window with my
bandanna wrapped around my hands to shield the sunburn blisters on their
backs from the sun and dreamed of the hot showers and swimming pool that had
been promised. Then disaster struck.

The driver pulled over and flipped open an inspection panel inside the bus
above the gearbox. A loud hiss of steam erupted from below followed by an
acrid smell. The head gasket had blown. We were fortunate that none of the
established “moaners” were on our bus. The atmosphere was jovial.

We had
been through it all that week, we could overcome anything. Paul suddenly
realised that he hadn’t flown his kite at any time during the tour. Paul has
two rituals wherever he goes. He always has his picture taken in interesting
places with his inflatable banana (blown up of course), and he always flies
his kite.

So out came the kite, the wind was kind and the kite soared.

After half an hour it was decided that we would decamp to the backup Land
Cruisers and staff would have to wait with the crippled bus. We rolled into
Nairobi late, tired and yes…….ready for beer.

A beer, a shower, a shave and a change of clothes later and I was ready for

So I am told, Carnivore is world famous. An experience not to be forgotten.
Where else can you eat eland, wildebeest, crocodile, zebra, cuckoo and a
whole host of other wild game animals. Crocodile is interesting, very like
lobster. I would like to try it in a Madras sauce with some pilau rice and
sag aloo.

After dinner we had the gala evening. A few awards, all earned worthily.
Some comic songs from groups of riders ( I am bound to say ours was the best
“Clive’s way”.) Finally back to the bar at the hotel. This was not so much a
bar with a few prostitutes, it was more like a brothel that served beer. I
have been to Amsterdam but I have never seen this trade plied with such
enthusiasm, it was downright scary. The girls on our tour were being
conscripted rapidly as “surrogate wives” by us guys to fend off the
attentions of the more persistent “ladies of the night”. One of the girls
said to me that it was the most fun she had ever had, seeing so many men as
the victim of so many sexual predators. After more beer than I care to think
about I headed off to bed (alone) with every intention of having a well
earned lie in.

It never fails to surprise me how a comparatively short period of
conditioning can change one’s daily routine. Ok I didn’t wake up at six, but
considering it was well past 3.00 a.m. before I hit the hay I think I made a
good muster for 8.00 a.m. Breakfast in the “brothel” was interesting. The
“morning shift” had arrived, (who is interested in sex at that time of the
day). An interesting combination of food was served up, eggs, bacon, toast,
pineapple and water melon……..hmmm. After breakfast a largish group of us
wandered into town and found a market for some souvenir shopping. Nairobi is
a violent place and we were advised strongly not to wear watches or
jewellery as it could well attract muggers. On talking with a stall holder
in the market we were told that, muggers, when caught, are generally dealt
with using a tyre, half a gallon of petrol and a pack of Swan Vestas, enough

The afternoon was spent by the pool soaking up the last of the rays. The bus
collected us at 7.00 p.m. and whisked us off to the airport all too soon. In
the queues and the departure lounge everyone was quiet. The event was over
and the realisation of this had sunk in. Over the course of the tour we
cycled roughly the equivalent of London to Leeds off road, in Africa. The
event raised over £365,000 for Scope, one rider alone collected £17,000. I
have met people I hope I will know for the rest of my life and some people I
pray I will never meet again as long as I live. It was a nice touch when the
captain of the flight home announced us as “heroes who have ridden across
Africa for charity” over the public address. As a group we cheered

Gatwick at 5.30 a.m. on a February morning the air was so cold it stung the
sunburn on the back of my hands. All my goodbyes had been said and I stood
on the pickup concourse waiting for my lift home. Cycling, and maybe some
other things in my life, was never going to be the same again.


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