Coming in from Ethiopia, Kenya was an immediate and blissful relief. After a month of non stop shouts of “you you you”, “give me money” and “FIRENJI FIRENJI!”, Kenya seemed a more relaxed and sensible place, a place where I could begin to relax and enjoy myself once again. People spoke English, I could actually read the writing (for the first time since leaving Europe four months ago) and Marmite was available in the shops. It seemed I had arrived back in civilisation at last.
Northern Kenya was a long grind against strong headwinds through a tough stretch of roasting hot desert. It was dull riding, and hard work, but I was content simply to be able to cycle unmolested and to be able to wild camp again. As I progressed south the landscapes grew more interesting, more mountainous and more vibrant. After weeks of desert it was a delight to see green again.
It was a thrill to see Maasai for the first time, even if the first man I saw was wearing an Arsenal football shirt under his traditional red chequered Shuka. It was the first of many signs I was to see in Africa of the steady erosion of the West on local culture, a subject which probably deserves an article all of its own. The population density began to skyrocket and the roads became progressively more dangerous as settlements started to sprawl. Towns throughout East Africa are largely uniform. The same shops, the same bars and largely the same people seem to be found throughout. There are small differences, but I was largely surprised at the lack of cultural diversity in the region.
Arriving in Nairobi I was in dire need of a break. Tired by my time in Ethiopia and the desert grind, I was fatigued and road weary. I was incredibly fortunate to be put in touch, through a friend of my mother's, with Louis and Sarah, with whom I ended up staying in Nairobi for more than a month. I wrote in a previous article that I was in general feeling that my motivation was slipping, having not stopped anywhere for long in almost a year of hard cycling. After the various trials of Egypt and Ethiopia that feeling was exacerbated, and Louis and Sarah provided the perfect antidote.
Constant motion and the rigours of dirtbag life eventually wear a person down, and it was amazing for me to have a comfortable place to stay and a chance to fully relax. When I was younger I think I found it difficult to completely let people into my life, always been quite closed off and reserved. More than two years of cycling around the world has largely cured me of that and I now value the relationships I have more than ever.
Louis and Sarah invited me into their home and gave me exactly what I needed. I am so incredibly grateful to both of them for everything they did for me. They made me part of the family, and became part of mine. Long term travel can be difficult as you are always brushing against people’s lives, sometimes finding powerful connections but rarely lingering for long enough to really explore them.
Through my ride I have found friends and family all over the world. Sometimes I have only a few days to spend with someone, but even that can be long enough for a lasting friendship. The time I have never seems to be long enough though, and it can be hard to leave just when you are getting close to people. It was a rare pleasure with Louis and Sarah to have enough time, for once, to go deeper.
The month I spent in Nairobi passed pleasantly. I met interesting people, visited interesting places and had an all-round good time. I took a train down to the coast near Mombasa for a week’s holiday on the beach, got a tattoo, gave a couple of talks in Nairobi to fundraise for Build Africa, and got my bike ready for the next leg.
I felt myself at first relax, then slowly begin to yearn for the road once more. My excitement grew for the places ahead and the experiences waiting to be had. Dreaming of adventure is, in a way, almost as good as actually having it. Certainly, it's much more comfortable. My fantasies rarely match up to the reality, but that takes nothing away from the pleasure of imagining them. The return of my wanderlust was just what I was waiting for, a sign that I was ready to get back in the saddle.
When I finally left Nairobi I was revitalised and full of positivity. East and Southern Africa lay ahead of me and I couldn’t wait to discover it. This was the Africa I had come for. I imagined riding dusty dirt roads, sleeping in rustic villages and crossing vast wildernesses filled with giraffes, zebras, elephants and lions. In my imagination I fit myself into old books I had read of colonial era explorers and rugged African adventurers. I knew that my fantasies were probably naïve, but I hoped that at least some part of them might come to be. My mind was once again awash with possibility.
I spent three weeks riding west through the Kenyan Rift Valley towards the Ugandan border. The landscapes were beautiful, the people friendly and the climate thoroughly agreeable. It was some of the best riding in Africa. Picturesque lakes, spectacular mountains, quiet campsites and incredible wildlife. It was all that I had hoped for. I avoided main highways and stuck determinedly to the back roads. Traffic was low and I was overjoyed to be back in the saddle.
One of the most incredible sections I have ever ridden was coming around Mount Longonot down to Lake Naivasha. Through Eric, a friend in Nairobi who had been very helpful in planning my route as well as servicing my bike, I’d been granted permission to ride through a private ranch next to Hell’s Gate National Park. I had the sandy track entirely to myself and as the sun began to set above the lake ahead of me, giraffes, zebras and antelope galloped across the plans around me. Longonot loomed behind and the only sound was the familiar hum of my bicycle. Rarely has a golden hour been more thoroughly golden for me.
Bicycle travel is usually not glamorous. Following a long term bikepacker on social media it might sometimes seem otherwise, but the reality is that there are many long days of mundane riding, of tired legs and occasional crippling boredom. Now and then, though, there are moments that transcend. Hours where I ride cloaked in a kind of glory; a wild sense of joy and freedom of which I have never found the match. Moments like these are why I ride, and what I am always searching for. Moments that truly go beyond.
I was privileged to visit a number of Build Africa schools along the way, and to meet some of the teachers and Build Africa staff. I was humbled by their compassion, and inspired by their dedication. The challenges faced by many of the kids in these areas make my life look like a cake walk. There is much more I have to say about Build Africa and their work, with a full article and a fundraising video on the way, but in the meantime I will simply state how proud I am to be riding for Build Africa and how valuable the work they are doing is. They really are transforming people’s lives.
My ride through Kenya was magic. I met captivating people, saw a huge amount of wildlife and crossed some magnificent landscapes. Kenya is far more mountainous than I had expected and I was happy to be able to cycle a couple of big mountain passes. Wild camping wasn’t generally possible due to the high population density, especially further west, but I was treated to some incredibly generous hospitality by locals along the way. I also camped at a couple of police stations and schools; something which would seem a completely bizarre concept in Europe but which is actually reasonably normal in much of Africa.
I was off-road for most of the way through to the Ugandan border, my improvised route sometimes even taking me through people’s gardens as I used local footpaths to stitch together dirt roads and make my way west. The landscape grew greener as I neared Uganda and I crossed into the 50th country of my ride at a tiny, rarely used border just south of Mount Elgon. The moment was bittersweet, for I was sorry to be leaving. In Kenya I had grown comfortable.
I had been in Kenya for more than two months. In more than two years of cycling the only country in which I have stayed longer is New Zealand, right at the start of my ride. Like New Zealand, Kenya is special to me. Special for the people I met there as much as for its landscapes and wildlife. It gave me some of the best experiences of my journey to date, and I will treasure those memories long after I have left Africa behind. In Kenya, for once, the reality truly lived up to the fantasy.