Distance: 171 km / 106 mi
Elevation: 1,903 m / 6,243 ft
Flight: Dubai > Nairobi
Wildlife spotted: hippo, vervet monkey, giraffe, warthog, baboon, impala (antelope), zebra (in a sanctuary we passed).
Birds spotted: Green Ibis, African Sacred Ibis, African Starling, Fish Eagle, Guinea Fowl.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the previous two weeks’ blog posts have been more about what we’ve eaten and drunk, than where we’ve cycled, since the bikes were living in a box. You’ll be glad to know that this week we actually did some cycling— in Kenya! You better make yourself comfortable, this one’s a long one.
After saying our goodbyes and maybe-see-you-on-Zanzibars to Tom and Jodie, we hopped on another Emirates flight and indulged in a free beer and new release movie. We landed in Nairobi at 2.30pm, which gave us ample time to build the bikes and cycle to our guest house in daylight. Like most cycle tourers, we have a strict ‘no cycling in the dark’ rule. Admittedly we have broken it on the odd occasion, but that was fine in Europe or Asia really. In East Africa, however, it really is a strict rule. Avoid the dark and you’ll avoid naughty people and even naughtier animals.
It was only a short 15 km from the airport to Wonderhouse Homestay. The main road was fine, but we both felt a change when we detoured through an estate, before arriving at the armed compound where Wonderhouse Homestay is located. We had noted some slums in the area to avoid, but we quite possibly cycled straight through one. Alfric, the owner, assured us that the area is safe, but stressed the after dark rule. He also gave our route out of Nairobi a once-over, to keep us out of the way of trouble.
We ended up staying three nights at Wonderhouse Homestay, as we were both shattered after such a busy week. You can tell they usually cater to holidaymakers who have money burning a hole in their pockets, as one breakfast and one dinner came to an eye-watering £30. It’s our own fault for not asking the price — but we’re in Kenya! We weren’t expecting it to be that expensive, especially as we only had veg fried rice and eggs on toast. Thankfully for our dwindling bank balance, we had opted to cook our other meals, after a quick trip to the supermarket, before we got that bill. Just imagine if we had blindly scoffed three dinners, two lunches and three breakfasts!
Walking to the the local shopping mall we touched on the very edge of Sowato, another slum, but again were assured it’s safe during the day. Everyone was really friendly actually, and seemed surprised to see us wandering around their neighbourhood. Those who sparked up a conversation were intrigued by what we were doing in Kenya and asked lots of questions. Since English is a main language here, conversations are as they would be at home. It may sound strange saying that, but after three months in India, where most conversations are conducted in an interview-style manner, with the same 4-8 questions being directed at you, it’s refreshing to speak to locals as you’d speak to friends at home.
The fact English is one of two main languages spoken in Kenya — the other being Swahili — is of course a hangover from colonial days. Embarrassingly neither Dan nor I knew Kenya was once part of the British Empire. They don’t teach it in schools, which is absurd when you think we’re taught the dark pasts of other countries — why not our own? Kenyan history is also not something we’ve ever found ourselves reading up on either. But now we have. So here’s a very brief summary.
In the early 1900s there was a race amongst the European superpowers, like Britain, France, Germany and Belgium, to colonise Africa. Because the bigger your empire the stronger you are, right? Britain and Germany were both vying for what is now modern-day Kenya. Britain won and Kenya became part of the British Empire. It stayed under British rule from 1920 to 1963, at which point a black majority government was voted in and declared independence.
At the mall we stocked up on food — supermarkets are so expensive here — and then popped to the pharmacy for a malaria test kit and treatment, which cost £7.50. Then we caught an Uber back with our heavy load. After one more day of resting, we were ready to rolling west.
Our first ride in Kenya wasn’t the most enjoyable experience. Since we were in east Nairobi we had to skirt all around the city on highways A104 and Southern Bypass, as we didn’t want to cycle through the city centre. There wasn’t much choice of smaller roads until we were out in the sticks, but we did get an incredible city skyline view of Nairobi on the Southern Bypass and there was mostly a generous hard shoulder. We actually had a hard shoulder up until Kikuyu, where we stopped for lunch. After that, we were in the direct line of fire until we reached Limuru, our first stop.
One thing we were surprised to see on this gruelling stretch of highway was other cyclists. And I’m not talking about people who were using bikes as transport. I’m talking about fully Lycra-clad, pro-looking, road bike-riding cyclists. We must of spotted at least 20, who all waved and yelled well wishes at us. Imagine that being your Sunday ride, a deadly highway.
Our next stop after Limuru was Lake Naivasha. Kenya’s wild side was finally revealing itself. We had two route options: stick on the highway or take the old road that descended into the Rift Valley. It’s was a no brainer.
Descending into The Rift Valley was spectacular. The Great Rift Valley is a 6,000 km trench that runs from Lebanon’s Baqaa Valley in Asia to Mozambique in southeastern Africa. Imagine that. It ranges from 395 m (1,300 ft) below sea level at the Dead Sea, to 1,830 m (6,000 ft) above sea level in southern Kenya. We got to take in the views the whole way down as the road was virtually traffic-free and no pedalling was required for about 12 km.
About 30 km from Lake Naivasha is when you first get a glimpse of the huge watering hole. We’d planned to stay at Camp Carnelly’s — yes there are campsites in Kenya! — which is famous for hippo spotting. And sure enough, within a couple of hours of setting up camp, one clambering out of the lake — they’re such elegant creatures *eye roll* — and marked his territory at several bushes along the water’s edge. That’s quite something to witness; he whipped his little tail like a helicopter while doing a number one and number two simultaneously, thus sending his ‘scent’ everywhere.
Our original plan from Lake Naivasha was to complete a loop of the lake, then head towards the tea plantations at Kiricho. But after speaking with Mark, we decided to head towards Masai Mara, Kenya’s most famous nature reserve. He was bursting with information and got us so excited to cycle through the Masai villages. We had planned to assess the kitty once we reached Tanzania as to whether we could afford a safari, since that’ll be the end of the Africa budget, but after realising it’ll be rainy season in Tanzania and working out a way to visit Masai Mara relatively cheaply, we altered our plans (will tell all if it goes to plan).
Our new route first took us along the western edge of Hell’s Gate National Park, which sits just south of Lake Naivasha; it’s where we spotted baboons. Here’s a few extra tit bits for you, too: this is the only national park you can cycle through, which is terrifying to even imagine; and it formed the inspiration for the landscapes in Disney’s The Lion King — Pride Rock is a real place!
It was around Hell’s Gate that we got a taste of what cycling in Kenya is really like. We did have the option to backtrack and pick up the main road to Narok — the last main town before entering the Masai area — but we decided, naturally, to take the more adventurous route through the Nakuru villages. A good portion of the ride was spent pushing the bikes through thick, powdery mud or up impossibly steep inclines. We only managed 30 km. We were pooped. That’s when the most amazing thing happened.
We asked at a local secondary school if we could camp in their grounds. Worried for our safety, the teacher pointed us to the police station in the next village, Maiella. We were told to ask for the Chief Officer, who greeted us with the biggest smile and the strongest handshake — everyone in Kenya greets you with a handshake. He said it was perfectly fine to pitch our tent behind his building. That’s when we found out that the police station was actually in the same compound as the local polytechnic!
After setting up camp and devouring lunch, we spent the afternoon with the teachers and the students. Dan even played a game of football with the lads — I spotted a few cheeky tackles but no goals. While he was doing that, I was asked to sing a song from the UK. My mind went blank. I asked them to sing for me first, hoping they’d forget. They never. Embarrassingly, the only lyrics that came to me was Britney Spears ...Baby One More Time. And so that’s what I sang — or attempted to sing.
What an incredible and unexpected afternoon we had at the school. We were made to feel so welcome and were completely worn out by the kids. We curled up in our tent that evening absolutely knackered and totally and utterly in love with Kenya. Now on to Masai Mara!