In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle
17 minutes reading time (3347 words)

Stage 9: Journey to the Source of the Nile...

Nairobi to Jinja: 1050km, Jan 4th – 21st

In 1999, I was invited to play cricket for the wealthy philanthropist Christopher Ondatjie in Devon. Despite only scoring a single run, he kindly gifted me a signed copy of his book ‘Journey to the Source of Nile’, documenting his attempt to recreate some of the great Victorian explorers’ journeys in search of the cherished source. Given the logistical problems of getting an overland visa for Ethiopia, going to see the start of the world’s longest river and explore some of the places Mr Ondatjie described were certainly incentives to head west, rather than directly north from Nairobi…

Tim Jeal’s book before Mark’s dogs had had a read…

 My decision was also helped by my Christmas host Mark Durston showing me a shiny new copy of Tim Jeal’s excellent book ‘Explorers of the Nile’. Over the holiday break, I eagerly digested all the stories of Livingstone, Speke & co before Mark’s dogs physically digested part of the book! Fortunately, I was able to salvage the last couple of chapters as I headed out of Nairobi on January 3rd with Will Rudd stoking.

An unusual activity in December: Cricket at Nairobi Club versus British High Commisioner’s XI

Will is Kenyan but in his second year of a Geography degree at Durham University. I had met him just before Christmas whilst staying with David Waters and enjoyed a relaxed New Year with their two families in Laikipia. Will cycled across American in his gap year, averaging 100km per day so I had little hesitation is inviting him for a mini safari. He has been one of the strongest stokers so far and this made up for his limited navigation skills: geography degrees are obviously not what they used to be…

I spent New Years in Laikipia with the Waters & Rudds… David is a keen photographer

Our aim was to get the bike up towards Nakuru. Although less than 300km from Nairobi, we wanted to avoid the busy highway and thus planned to loop back up to Nanyuki, before heading across Laikipia and through the great rift valley. We were with the Frenchies, Jeremie & Claire, again for the first day, making it as far as Muranga, the capital of the Kikoyi, Kenya’s main tribe. It felt great to be back on the road: life becomes simple again - the only things that matter are finding enough food & water and a safe place to sleep. The stresses of modern life are temporarily left behind - a liberating feeling!

I guess no one in Thika has been to Birmingham

Getting to Muranga meant hacking up 40km on the main Thika road, currently a building site as the government, with the help of the Chinese, are building a new ‘super-highway’. Today it is one of the more confusing and dangerous roads in East Africa. Mark told me that 25 people (mainly pedestrians) had been killed on one of the new flyovers in 2011 alone. It was a relief to get off it and onto the more peaceful road to Muranga.

We camped that night in the grounds of the Catholic Cathedral, imposingly placed on the hill above the town and one of the more beautiful churches I had seen en route. Don’t worry Cephas (if you happen to be reading this), I’d prefer to go to Kawama any day. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to be woken up by the church bells and school children singing during the early morning mass. As they left the church, they were surprised to see 3 strange looking bicycles emerge from behind the building, their initial bemusements turning into excited laughter as they chased us down the hill out of the grounds.

One wheel in the southern hemisphere, one in the North!

The first 10 kms was a beautiful downhill glide on good tarmac with the morning light turning the fertile landscape into a picture postcard. What goes down generally goes up, especially as the map showed us that we would be crossing 8 rivers before Nyeri, some 50km North. It had been my decision to take this road rather than go back on ourselves to rejoin the bigger road in Muranga. I apologised to Jeremie as we started up the first hill, an ‘E’ road. Kenya has 5 classes of road, Will told me as we saw the sign. E is at best a dirt track; at worst something goats would struggle on. As it was, it took us 2 hours to do 16 km and we were exhausted by the time we hit the tar again after 25km. Getting to Nanyuki now seemed ambitious, given it meant clocking 125km for the day.  11 hours after setting off from the church, we pulled into Max Graham’s drive 15 minutes before sunset: the speedo had been running for a full 8.5 hours – one of the longest days of the trip so far!

With Dr Max Graham at his home in Nanyuki

Max is an old rugby mate from University. He had started a PHD in Geography during my final year in 2001 and we’d stayed in touch intermittently. He has  spent most of the last 10 years in Kenya, and recently launched his 'Space for Giants’ charity, working with the local community in Laikipia to ensure they can live in harmony with the Elephant population. It was great to hang out with him, his lovely girlfriend Lauren and their project team for a couple of days. I turned 33 on Jan 6th. Max told me he has a special surprise for me as 15 girls turned up as we cycled off – an ambitious group of young professionals about to attempt the ‘3 peaks’ challenge – climbing East Africa’s highest 3 peaks in 20 days. I coincidentally had dinner this week with one of the finishers in Kampala –congratulation to Livi Toye and her team!!

Will’s birthday present, meanwhile was some deodorant and an extra 20kms due to a wrong turn! Nevertheless, we enjoyed an amazing day cycling through the bush to one of his mate’s farms in the famous Ol Petejta ranch: Nick’s father Giles was the livestock manager with several thousand head of cattle. They treated us to a spectacular sundowners watched by (at least) 2 of the big 5. Thanks you Giles & Ali for a memorable birthday!!

A sundowner’s to remember as  I approached middle-age!

The following day, we rose early and, after a lift to the gate from Nick, we pedalled hard towards the rift valley, with the first 20kms or so through dirt, the morning light once again making the early start worthwhile. On the tar, we were making good progress before being flagged down by a well dressed local on the side of the road, standing by a gleaming car. Will pointed out that his number plate meant he was probably a politician. His bulging gut seemed to confirm this! Nonetheless, he was very friendly and simply wanted to understand how the bike worked. After a brief but animated conversation, we thought little of it and cycled off.  5 minutes later, he pulled up alongside us, wound down the window and gave us 500 shillings (nearly £5) ‘to buy some tea’.  Europeans taking handouts from Africans – a sign of things to come, I thought to myself as he sped off…


We crossed the equator several more times if you believe the signs. My GPS reckoned only once..

After an effective ‘eat as much as you like’ for £1, we stopped for a rest at Thompsons falls where a British family approached us to say hi. It turned out that the dad was at school with my cousins and good friends with a colleague of mine from Cranleigh Andy Logan. Small world I thought but then Andy does seem to know most people! The spectacular rift valley greeted us shortly afterwards and we touched 75km on the descent before grinding up the other side of the valley at less than 10km/h. We overnighted in Nakuru, hosted by a Joseph, a fascinating Kenya who runs Enki, an educational charity that Cranleigh is connected with. 50 years old but looking barely 40, he had worked in 15 african countries and was passionate about improving the economic plight of its people. Over a couple of tuckers, we shared our idea about education and development. From a pastorlist community in Northern Kenya, he reflected wisely that  (western) Education is in competition with Pastorlism. He was lucky to get an education as his family were poor so had few cattle to look after. Getting the balance between promoting education without destroying traditional ways of live is not an easy question to answer.

With Joseph outside one of the classrooms built with monies raised by Cranleigh School

The following morning we visiting Ronda School, situated in the poorest community of Nakuru, and coincidentally one of the epicentres of the ethnic violence in early 2008. ‘The place has not been the same since’, Joseph reflected forlornly as we drove along the dirt road that would simply have been impassable during the rains. Ronda is a primary school with c 1500 children and some classes of more than 100 students.  The staff:student ratios are not uncommon in Africa, and in this case the problem is manifested by a transient local population who regularly move to wherever they can find work. It is heartening, however, to meet people like Joseph who are tackling this mountain of a problem in a positive manner, one step at a time.

Stage 1 Complete: 400 of the hardest kilometres of the trip so far

The contrast between Ronda and St Andrew Turi, a local international boarding school was clear as we entered its gates at midday after a tough 50km uphill climb. ‘Welcome to The Cranleigh of western Kenya’, Beccy Gibson joked as she greeted us. Beccy taught Classics at Cranleigh for nearly a decade before I joined in 2009. Sadly, we didn’t formally cross over in the staff room but I had met her a couple of times and it was great to see another familiar face. After a super lunch and a meeting with the headmaster Adrian to discuss plans for the following weekend, Beccy drove us back to Nakuru, where we transferred to Nairobi. I had planned to return to Nairobi for a week to help Mark at Peponi in his economics department, deliver a couple of lectures to schools (2 on skype to the UK!) and to plan the route to Jinja with Rob Ravilious.


Live lectures of the trip to economic students in Nairobi & primary schools in London (on Skype!)

 Rob is married to Olivia, a colleague of mine at Cranleigh and we’ve been training buddies since they got back from a year down under in 2009. With a kid on the way, it was now or never for him to come and join me and I was thrilled when he confirmed before Christmas that he’d be able to make a week in January.

Stocked up with some birthday presents from the family and kit supplies from Mark Jenkins, we spent the afternoon with Beccy catching up on news and fixing the chain on my bike. Our first activity would be to ride into Chapel the following morning. St Andrews is a traditional Christian school but the chaplain liked the idea, especially after I said I had done the same thing in Cranleigh last year. I talked to the students about the charities Beyond the Bike is supporting and the importance of doing things ‘Beyond Ourselves’. The feedback was good and hopefully it got some of them thinking…

With Beccy & Rob

Beccy and a small group from St Andrews cycled with us for the first 30km, including Jo – at 11 years, the youngest stoker (on a proper road) of the trip so far. I’m told that my niece Daisy is in training to break the record in Jordan! Rob and I then pedalled the remaining 50kms to Kericho through the hilly but stunning tea country. At an altitude of c 2500m above sea level, the going was tough and I reflected that at the same height in Europe in January, I’d hopefully have a pair of skis attached to my feet.

Dreaming of Chamonix at 2,500km picking tea in January (note the appropriate t-shirt!)

For the next two nights, we stayed with tea farming friend of the Rudds – the Defraines & Davies. Coincidentally, I had bumped into Antoniette Defraine in Nanyuki and she had invited me to stay if I was cycling past. Hugo Defraine, her husband, was one of the managers of the Finlay tea planation, part of the Swire group business empire. For those who think that multinationals simply exploit developing countries, I’d recommend a visit to Finlays: The investment in infrastructure, education & health facilities as well as employment for c 10,000 workers blew Rob and I away. Hugo himself was of the adventurous type, having spent 6 months helping a European couple Navigate some of Africa’s biggest rivers 20 years ago. A keen kitesurfer and full of energy, we both agreed that he was a father we’d aim to emulate!

We enjoyed a fast decent from Kericho, resting for a sandwich before the infamous 11km climb up the Nandi Hills escarpment. Despite almost being taken out by a matatu (minibus taxi) trying to undertake us on the hard shoulder, we arrived in Nandi Hills town in the early afternoon and enjoyed a cold drink amidst the friendly bustle of locals enquiring about the bike. ‘Ohhh, two for one’…’Eey - From South Africa!? – you are crazy’… ‘Noooh: don’t goo to Uganda – hit tis veery dangerous’ …. Were the typical comments we’d hear repeated. Whilst we may have experienced a near miss with a matatu on the hill, Thandie’s unusual dimensions generally made the cycling safer as drivers would slow down to take a look, wide eyed with bewilderment at the strange sight of two mzungos on a multi-coloured tandem. Rob joked that we’d better be careful in Uganda given their view of homosexuality.

The 10kms from the town to Simon & Robin farmhouse was dirt but spectacular with the red muram road contrasting vividly with the deep green of the manicured tea plantations. Arriving in good time allowed us to take a stroll with the family around the tea, with Simon kindly imparting some of his vast knowledge of this industry – one of Kenya’s main exports.

Morning view from the Davis’s driveway

Our aim for the next day was to try and make the 150kms to Bob & Bea Andersen’s near Mt Elgon. However, speaking to Bob that morning meant it would be impossible given the quality of the road. So, despite, making good progress on smooth tarmac to Kitale, we decided to overnight there with a very hospitable local ‘couchsurfing’ family. Staying in Kitale also meant being reunited for the evening with the Frenchies who had bushwhacked their way from Nanyuki through Laikipia with some exciting stories to tell – take a look at their website, but only if you’re French speaking!

Kevin was very excited to see us near Kitale – we were the first mzungus that he’d seen in his 6 years…

Bob was right about the road, however. The tarmac fell away after 20 kms and we slogged around the lower slopes of Mt Elgon through some rutted dirt. We decided when the road was particular bad that it would be easier for Rob to run alongside – not exactly too onerous for a man who prefers running to cycling: Rob has completed the gruelling Marathon des Sables as well the south downs way in a single go!

Thandie weighing in at nearly 80kms. Hmm…

Bob’s hospitality was worth the effort, however, and we enjoyed a fascinating afternoon looking around his farm as well as many of the worthwhile community projects that he and his wife Bea (an ex MSF doctor) has built, including a hospital, two school & an orphanage. We cycled up to the latter and several of the kids enjoyed a go on Thandie, including one of the youngest – a delightful 10 year old call Helen.  10% of the money that Beyond the Bike is raising is ‘floating’ – to allow me to donate to projects that I feel are really making a SUSTAINSABLE difference in the communities they serve. Having been blown away by what Bob & Bea are trying to do, I was happy to promise them a contribution toward a new building for a vocational training centre.

Flower sorting on the farm; Helen enjoys a ride on Thandie

As with many of our other hosts, It was a shame not to be able to stay a little longer but we had a deadline in Jinja so pushed on on Thursday morning for what proved to be the shortest but toughest day of the week. After crossing the border without any hassle at Suam River crossing, we endured nearly 10 hours of riding, pushing and falling off on a road that had severely damaged by the recent rain. Nonetheless, the view of the Ugandan lowlands was spectacular and there was very little traffic. One vehicle we did meet, however, was parked on the side of the road with a bunch of very fit looking athletes stretching around it. We stopped to say hi, happy for an excuse to rest. When we mentioned that we were from the UK, one of the quieter guys informed us nonchalantly that he lived in Teddington and trained in Richmond Park. Moses Kipsoro is also the Commonwealth gold medallist for both the 5000 & 10000m!

Go Moses for London 2012!!

Suam River - not many people pass this way

As dusk approached, we were still 20 km short of the tarmac but were welcomed in by village headman Hasan and his family in Mateibei. Small scale coffee farmers, we spent part of the evening being educated on the crop by his daughter Naster whilst a group of youngster enjoyed a film in a makeshift cinema rather too close to our tent!

Wake up & smell the Coffee

Another sh*t view in Africa

Our minds were focused on a cold beer for the next two days and we made fast progress once hitting the tarmac at Kapchorwa. 150km on the first day was the longest of the whole trip since being unsupported in Zambia, helped by a fast decent to Mbale. Here, Thandie broke her PB speed record at 76.7km/h. After camping in the swamplands 100km from Jinja, we wondered in amazement how the early explorers were able to hack their way through such inhospitable terrain. We also crossed the Lake Victoria railway, all the way from Mobassa & made famous by the film the lion and the darkness. It didn’t look like there had been much maintenance in the last 100 years! After a less restful night (the temperature was noticeably higher), we raced into Jinja for lunch on Saturday, 650km on the clock since Turi. Over a couple of Nile specials (local lager), we reflected on what was generally type I & II fun and cooled off in the river. ‘Safe to swim?’, we enquired. ‘No crocs here,mate’, came the typically relaxed reply. But when a large reptile head swam past us, we decided not to venture too far from the shore. We were informed later that it was a monitor lizard! Phew…

4500km until the Med – I wonder if I will beat the Nile? I still had the final chapter of the book!

I am writing this from Gulu in Northern Uganda where the country is suffering a heatwave! I gather it is the opposite in the UK!? Either way, I hope to be able to update you on the latest stage to Juba in South Sudan when I get there on the weekend!!

Not the headline I was hoping for…







Stage 10: Kampala to juba – Six nations on a Sweet...
Stage 8: 3 types of fun on the road to Kenya...

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