Kenya obviously came with a massive sense of relief. We had survived Ethiopia. I have rarely been so happy to leave a country. The same slight sense of nervousness of the unknown still accompanied me over the border, however there was little feeling that it could be any worse than what we had just encountered. And Kenya was certainly probably everything and more than we had hoped for. The feeling of space and peace we felt wild camping with not a soul around that first night was immense.
The riding days were still hard, at least physically. This is Kenya’s northern frontier, a vast expanse of desert like country, sparsely populated by the Semburu (a people related to the Masaai) of whom many live a nomadic existence based on cattle herding. It’s hard country, very dry and very hot with water often two days walk away for the cattle. The people eek out an existence on the meager fertile land (especially right now, in a drought) and we were told on more than one occasion that many Semburu carry AK47’s and that they sort out their own disputes, with very little (or no) police involvement.
The hardest part of this frontier ride for us was the wind and the water. We were hit by ferocious, hot, cross winds that slowed us and made riding tough, and water is also harder to come by. It is so dry out here that it is common to see children and adults standing on the road holding out water bottles and shouting for water from passing trucks and cyclists. We barely had enough water for ourselves and were shocked to see the basically large puddles of brackish water that constituted the people’s drinking water. We too collected our drinking water from these brown puddles, but unlike the locals we could double filter ours. It’s hard not to feel that some simple water harvesting techniques such as water tanks for storage and guttering for roof run off could make a world of difference. Especially when we saw that government places like police stations had exactly this.
By the time we reached Marsebit, we were all quite shattered and in need of a rest day. Henry’s Camp was a true oasis and possessed hot water and the cleanest bathrooms I’d seen in months. We recuperated with beer and plenty of food. None of us particularly wanted to leave, but Astrid and I had signed up to do a Vipassana meditation retreat in Nairobi and needed to get there. Craig decided to join us on the cycle south.
The next few days were marked by long hot days in the saddle, sweet milky tea and chapatti breaks in tiny restaurants, camping behind pubs and even an invite to a Semburu house for lunch. Everyone was super friendly, and almost everyone spoke English. It was a joy to be able to communicate in a more meaningful way and learn about the lives people lived out here.
South of Archer’s Post, the old colonial frontier, things began to change. There was less of a wild west feel and more development. We began to climb towards Mount Kenya; the area became much greener with fenced farms and fruit for sale on the side of the road. Rolling into Nanyuki we got a reverse culture shock; coffee shops, supermarkets and all the trimmings of modernity. And also something else. Something that took us a while to put our finger on, but which revealed itself over the next few weeks – Kenya in places, especially Nanyuki and later Nairobi, felt in many ways still so colonial. Many white Africans lived in beautiful homesteads (or houses), mostly sheltered from the everyday hardships of modern Kenya. A lot of old British traditions still linger on, and having just lived in England, it felt in many ways, quite British. I guess for us Kenya was also the first time we’d come in contact with white Africans and there was a stark contrast between how they lived and most Africans we’d come in contact with so far. Not to mention the fact that everyone has a maid, gardener and nanny (or a variation there of). You don’t actually have to be rich to have help in Africa, in time we met people from all walks of life, many middle or even lower middle class families who had hired help. There is no doubt that in a country where unemployment is a huge issue, that this gives valuable income to people. I guess it’s just so different from how we grew up, and on some fundamental level makes me uncomfortable. Over the next few months Astrid and I were probably constantly annoying various maids by trying to be helpful. I think we just need to accept that we can’t make a bed that well! Anyway, I have massively digressed! In Nanyuki, in a supermarket carpark we were lucky enough to meet Joost (who enlightened us on many quirks of Kenya). Joost, originally from The Netherlands has lived in Nanyuki for 20 years and very kindly invited us to stay in his garden. His home is gorgeous with views of Mount Kenya, surrounded by trees and flowers. We all sat on his porch that first night, sharing food and wine and felt so very fortunate. Joost is such a kind soul, and let us store our bikes and panniers while we headed to Nairobi for the meditation retreat the following day. Craig stayed behind to work on his blog and rest and we would find him in much the same position two weeks later.
As we had run out of time to pedal, Astrid and I took a metatu to Nairobi. These are mini buses that leave when they fill up and are incredibly affordable. The driving can be hectic, but no more than other parts of the world we’ve been in! Once in Nairobi we took a local bus out to where the meditation retreat was going to take place.
What followed was an incredible 10 days. Astrid had already done one Vipassana retreat in the UK, but for me it was new. It was quite different to the one we’d both done in Thailand back in 2014 and I found it very rewarding. We meditated for 10.5 hours a day, starting at 4.30am and finishing around 9pm. Astrid had suggested that by fully committing I would get the most out of it. So I took her advice and I am glad I did. It was incredibly difficult at times, but so rewarding. I especially loved the secular nature of it and the humour with which Goenka uses to teach this very valuable skill. At the end I felt like I had had a mental health reset and was filled with even more enthusiasm and joy for life.
Having completed the retreat, Astrid and I took two days out to relax. We rented a small cottage and treated ourselves to delicious food and some time alone together. It was a great way to not only process the meditation retreat, but also the last 6 weeks of craziness that had been Ethiopia.
On our return to Nanyuki we were happy to discover Craig was still at Joost’s place and we all decided to leave together. The rainy season, although late, had started to hint at arriving and we left under moody, heavy skies. Our route was not direct, as we wanted to avoid the main road into Nairobi and Craig was headed further west to Uganda anyway. That first day was particularly memorable as we got our first glimpses of giraffes and signs that elephants were about (although we didn’t see any actual elephants). Our lunch was shared with a Masaai guy herding his cows. Just another day in Kenya.
Saying goodbye to Craig was sad and we all hoped our paths would cross again further down the road. Astrid and I continued on alone, sometimes on main roads, other times on dirt tracks as we slowly made out way to Nairobi. We got super excited at our first proper sighting of zebras and nearly lost our shit when we a saw giraffe cross the road in front of us. It was a joy to be out in the Kenyan bush, seeing all these amazing animals. One morning, after wild camping in the bush, we saw some zebras meander by as we drank our morning coffee, meeting all our fantasies of cycling in Africa. The rains did eventually find us just after we swept down into the very impressive rift valley. We sheltered in a crowded restaurant and ate hot chips, waiting for the storm to pass. That night it was too wet and populated to wild camp, so we asked at a police station (which is the norm for cyclists in southern Africa). We were not disappointed. The kind officers gave us a dry room in which to pitch our tent (luxury by our standards) and the next morning the boss invited us in for breakfast. It was interesting to hear his opinions about Kenya, while overall he felt things were moving in the right way, it was sad to hear that while very educated, many Kenyans face unemployment and that subsequent alcohol issues prevail in many rural villages.
We continued to get intermittently wet as we made our way down to lake Naivasha, a popular tourist spot for foreigners and locals alike. Unfortunately I had become ill – some kind of stomach problem associated with fever and opted to go the short way around the lake to the campsite we had decided to stay at. For hours I battled shitty roads and rain, going so slowly that Astrid who had ridden much further (and seen giraffes) only arrived 20 mins after me. At least there were hippos grazing right by the lake that night. We could hear them munching from our tent!
We could have stayed at Lake Naivasha for days, but we were running out of time to get to Nairobi as a friend from England was soon to arrive to join us, and Vero who we were staying with and wanted to see, was only around for a short time due to work and family commitments. So, rather reluctantly we pushed to probably ride the worst 90km either of us have ever ridden. It was more or less okay until we had to climb out of the Rift Valley and then we were faced with the most fucked up driving I’ve seen since Iran. More than once we had to abort into the gutter. The road was narrow and full of seemingly suicidal truck drivers who would over take on double lines while going up hill on blind corners. It was harrowing and not helped by having to take ibuprofen or paracetamol every two hours to stop my temperature from spiking, a lack of energy from being ill, flat tubes and the encroaching dark. We rode the last 20km through the outskirts of Nairobi in the dark, fearing for our lives from the horrific traffic. People always come up with all kinds of reasons why Africa is dangerous – people, animals, crime, etc, but in reality, like everywhere else on the the planet, it’s deranged humans in metal boxes that are the most lethal.
Reaching Vero’s felt quite momentous for a variety of reasons. Mostly it was just wonderful to see Vero and Gabe again. And probably because I was ill I very much appreciated being enveloped by all the comforts we usually happily go without – soft bed, hot shower, cats, oven, couch and wifi. Our time in Nairobi was spent resting, making food, hanging with cats and catching up with various friends – some that we’d made at the retreat, as well as other cyclists. Particularly exciting was meeting up with Evan – a touring cyclist we’d crossed paths with in Albania in 2015. We had a wonderful time with him and his partner Megan, which included a pizza and movie night with Gabe, as Megan had also stayed with Vero in Dushanbe when she lived there. Small world! Lucy also arrived, which was exciting and we all prepared for the next leg of cycling.
One highlight that needs mentioning, and where photos will speak louder than words, is the Nairobi National Park. We were so lucky to be taken there by Pauline(a friend of Vero’s) one Saturday morning, and it is simply incredible how many wild animals live in the vast park so close to the metropolis of Nairobi.
We were not ready to leave Nairobi, it’s the kind of city you could lose weeks in. Not only because there are things to do, but it’s the kind of place that attracts many people and is kind of a melting pot of expats and travellers. Also, because Astrid and I were still a bit tired – that kind of long term fatigue that sneaks up on you gradually. We could have spent a week reading, watching films and making food. However, we had a date with Doug and Niovi in Zanzibar and two weeks to pedal there. So, slightly reluctantly (although looking forward to Zanzibar) we hit the road south.
First however, we had a date with Patricia and her friends in the Ngong Hills. We’d met Patricia at the meditation retreat and she was a fellow vegan – something very rare in meat loving Kenya, and had invited us for dinner. It was one of the loveliest evenings and Patricia made the most amazing food.
From the Ngong hills in the south of Nairobi we headed towards the Tanzanian border and the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro. We’d chosen a more off the beaten route which skirted Amboseli National Park – again due to Kenya’s incredibly high park fees, we did not visit, but enjoyed seeing the wildlife which doesn’t actually recognise the park borders. At night we camped in the bush, or next to people’s huts, or once on the roof of a pub. Kenyans are friendly and we felt incredibly safe and welcome. We snacked in local restaurants and were overjoyed to find cheap avocados and an abundance of chapatis. It was fun traveling as three and the rain mostly held off (although a nasty headwind began to slow our progress).
Soon we began to see the momentous Mount Kilimanjaro on the horizon, signalling our end to pedalling in Kenya. For me, this has been one of the loveliest countries to cycle through. People are incredibly friendly, it’s beautiful and safe (in our experience) and there are back roads to explore and animals to see. We both hope to return one day.