The Black mamba bicycle: named after Africa’s fastest snake. Having just travelled the best part of 1000km on one, I think I finally see why it was so titled. It is ironic. This bike is slow, unstable, heavy and unreliable. For the first 400km out of Nairobi I had to have the bike fixed on a daily basis. Not little adjustments like tightening the brakes or patching a tyre, but more heavy-duty work, including the welding together of part of the frame, and the replacing of every single bolt on the bike. Amazingly, though, I didn’t have a single flat tyre, which is lucky because I am not even sure the pump I had with me was the right size…
On the bright side, Africa is the place to have these sorts of problems – there is always someone there who is willing to make repairs for you. Regardless of skill or knowledge they will have your wheel off and your bike in pieces before you have a chance to blink. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily know how to put it back together again. This skill is not restricted to bicycles – on the same trip I had already spent a night with our car’s engine in pieces in its boot.
Before I left Nairobi I had only ridden the bike down to the local Nakumat, a distance of no more than a few hundred metres, unloaded. So, at five o’clock on the Monday morning when I clambered aboard and set off down the driveway bound for the coast, the first thing that struck me was how unstable it was; I felt like I was teetering around, my front wheel swerving dangerously of its own volition, the crate full of my kit, attached precariously with a piece of bike inner tubing wobbled about with a life of it’s own, threatening to throw me off with every push of the pedal. It was this tottering mess that made it’s way through the early morning traffic on Waiyaki Way. Traffic was the reason I was leaving so early, past about 7 in the morning it is bumper to bumper for the rest of the day, until about 5 when it turns around and is bumper to bumper in the opposite direction. With a short detour through Dagoretti I finally made it out of town, thoroughly diesel-pumped and wishing I had stayed in bed.
It was only hours later, when I found myself on an empty road surrounded by acacia trees, that I finally remembered why I had decided on this somewhat misguided adventure: Kenya is stunning. This feeling of contentedness in the saddle lasted a few brief moments before it started to rain; not a steady British drizzle, but a tropical downpour that left me drenched in seconds.
The first day ended in a conveniently located campsite which, if you were willing to risk electrocution, even had a hot shower.
I pootled along over the next few days, each of which brought further modifications to the bike – simple things like bits of roll-mat on the handles, or swapping the inner tube holding my baggage crate for a sturdier car tyre attachment (courtesy of Daddy Fake and Daddy Original). I finally rocked up at the gate to Amboseli National Park, where, having visited already (in the more conventional manner), I was aware that they wouldn’t let me cycle. Luckily, there were all manner of people willing to help – for a fee I could be guided round the park, buy some garish beaded necklaces, go back to Nairobi… With the distinct possibility of getting lost on a bike that was barely hanging together, I opted for the sensible choice – I strapped my bike to the back of a pikipiki (motorbike), jumped on the back of a second one, and headed off round the park in style.
The following morning, with three days’-worth of chafing and numb fingers, I was glad I had made the choice not to attempt the ride round the park. My pedal then finally gave up the ghost and parted company with it’s bearings, resulting in a lopsided and very odd cycling style which involved having to pull the pedal round with my toe. I ended up pushing the bike the last 10km to the border where, luckily, there was a fundi (handyman) or two waiting to beat the bike into submission, adjust the brakes, replace a few more bolts, and set me back on the road.
This latest repair saw me well across the border and into Tanzania. Children, with screams of mzungu (white man), greeted me in every town. On crossing the border I was immediately struck by the almost complete lack of English. I was a bit taken aback, but managed to get by with my rudimentary Swahili. The other thing that struck me was the number of drunken people – I later found out that there was some sort of festival, I think due to the monthly beer delivery. One particularly drunk and friendly man decided he wanted to have a chat with me, staggering across the road towards me, with arms flung wide as if to hug me.
“Wazungu” (white men), he exclaimed!
Luckily for me, and I think him, he chose the wrong man and missed me completely, continuing his drunken lurch across the road without collision.
Reaching Marangu, I decided to have a day off, and took the opportunity to visit a few waterfalls and wander around the local shambas (small farms). There was of course the obligatory bike-fixing session, the result being some new brake pads made of car tyre crafted very skilfully with a panga (machete), the replacement of a few more bolts with a nice solid twist in the brake rods. These repairs lasted till the following morning when I was obliged to purchase my first spare part. Amazingly this was the last repair I had to make – I think there was simply nothing left to break!
The longest day of the trip took me from Same to Krorogwe – about 140km. In general the roads were actually quite good. Where there were roads, that is – there were definitely long stretches that hadn’t been finished yet. When I finally arrived in Korogwe I was, to say the least, exhausted. My right knee was also agony and, popping off the bike to enquire about a room for the night, it collapsed under me, and much to the shock of the proprietor, and myself, I was suddenly sitting on the floor; my bike luckily crashing the other way. I had to stay after that, really…
Anyone who has ridden a bike over any distance will know what I mean when I say that it can be a bit monotonous; 8 hours a day in the saddle definitely gives you time to think. Mainly, though, I was thinking about what was going to break next, how steep the hill was, going up wishing that I had some gears, going down how it was surely time for the front wheel to fall off, or wondering if, as on so many of the roads in East Africa, there were speed bumps at the bottom (which, in my experience, were never gentle but, rather, small mountain ranges that had not only shaken me through but also resulted in the loss of a few lunches). Mainly, though, I just thought about how much I wanted to get to the coast.
It felt great to arrive at the beach in Pangani, where after 42km of dirt track I uncovered the most incredible sock mark and felt as though I really deserved that first swim.
Continuing the trip up the coast I headed back into Kenya. Cycling along a road, knowing that the white sandy beach was a few hundred meters away made the will to keep going dwindle away. Luckily, the planned end of the trip was in easy sight, with only the head-on trade wind to contend with.
Leaving Tiwi Beach to try and sell my bike, I was warned that they had had some problems on the road behind the campsite. What happened next pretty much sums up a lot about my experiences in Kenya, and Africa come to that – for every bad thing that happens you will always be surprised by the kindness and generosity of the majority of the population.
The askari (security guard) at the campsite cycled with me some of the way back to the tarmac, leaving me when he thought I would be safe. Assuming that nothing bad would ever happen to me, I continued along the sandy, rough road. Suddenly the man running on the other side of the road was right next to me with his fist raised:
“Let us negotiate!” he shouted.
“What? Um, no…”
I put on a burst of speed. Luckily, a few weeks on the road had given me some added power and I outpaced him easily. The track that had taken me half an hour or so now only took ten minutes to retrace, made quicker by the unexpected surge of adrenaline… and the bus which was following me slowly along… Unsure of their intentions, I kept up the pace until I returned to the road, where the bus pulled up behind me and three men piled out.
“What was that man doing? Was he your friend?”
“No, he was trying to mug me.”
“We followed you to make sure you were OK, you should be careful on this road.”
“Also, you dropped 100 shillings”
I was bowled over. In shock, I took my money back and watched them drive away.
I sold my bicycle the next day to Maxwell, a lovely chap who was chuffed to bits with it and had plans to use it to expand his flower shop on the roadside in Diani beach. He had a super cute kid, too. I feel like I made a lifetime’s-worth of repairs to the damn thing – I hope he doesn’t have to make too many more! I would like to say I was sad to see it go, that it had become part of me, that I was seduced by its rustic charm… But the truth is that I wasn’t, I was glad to see the back of the bloody thing.
My god, it was good to chill out on the beach and kite-surf (courtesy of Tribe Watersports): a fantastic way to end the trip, it felt like a proper holiday!Follow @trailtoanywhere
I grew up building dens in the garden, in the house, at school, up trees and at the beach, every one was an adventure in a boyhood dream or made-up land, but they always ended, I got distracted, it was dinner time, the holiday was over. But why does the adventure have to stop? At what age is it no longer acceptable to go out and build a den in the woods and play at surviving? Do you have to wait to have your own kids before you can get out there and rejoin the game? We all had our reasons, this was mine: to spend a week living this boyhood fantasy of building a den that we could live in, catching our own food and surviving, and, finally, a chance to play in the woods again, only this time on the remote Knoydart Peninsula in the Western Highlands of Scotland.
Being “adults” we had several meetings to set the “rules” for the trip, the difficulty “rating” was noticeably correlated to the levels of wine at the meetings and see-sawed between a glorified fishing trip and running naked through the Scottish Highlands. Eventually, we set our boundaries, in short: 200grams of oats/day, a standard wool blanket, a knife, a specialist object and a reference book. Clothing-wise we decided on nothing technical, matching jackets (supposedly made waterproof with waxing), a base layer, shirt, jumper and fleece.
Quite early on we chose our location: a 55,000 acre wild and sprawling playground between the sea Lochs Nevis and Hourn (Heaven and Hell) – the Knoydart Peninsula, frequently referred to as “Britain’s Last Wilderness”. What a place for an adventure, rugged and remote, accessible to us through an overnight bus ride, a 5 hour train ride, and a ferry.
It was an eventful week. Well, the first 2 days were very eventful, with an airlift and 2 of the remaining “survivors” deciding they wanted to leave, we were very quickly whittled down to just three (James, Rich and me). Fortunately, Chris (who was airlifted on the first evening) was able to return to us for a night before heading back to work in the city. His return did highlight the drop in our own energy levels having lived solely on oats, muscles and limpets for a few days. His frenetic energy and desire to try everything, from building steps, weaving walls, digging, chopping wood and foraging, he was like a small boy with vast amounts of energy to direct.
I had a thoroughly enjoyable week. Naturally, there were bits which I could have lived without, like not having an entirely waterproof jacket, sleepless nights in the cold, having to stoke the fire several times a night to keep warm, smokey and painful eyes, never being full, only eating shellfish and stinging nettles, spooning another guy… quite a few things, in fact, but I still genuinely enjoyed the experience.
The weather was good to us, although not perfect, the fronts of rain coming across allowed us to either avoid them or dry out between soakings. When we were wet we could feel energy levels plummet rapidly, really making us question why we were there, but then the sun would shine and everything would seem a bit more manageable.
Before we departed we were meant to research and learn about foraging, wild plants and shelter construction. This was in the spirit of learning, we would then contribute to the group as a whole – very hippyish, I know. Our main source of knowledge came from a couple of courses, the one I attended was a three hour coastal foraging course in Lyme Regis. Costing £30, it was well worth the money, just to know that all seaweeds are edible was great, though in reality it doesn’t taste that good so we hardly ate any.
Muscles, limpets and winkles were our main food sources, with the addition of wood sorel, stinging nettles and primrose flowers. I am sure a forager with more experience could have been more extravagant. With this limited array of food we had to be creative about how we cooked. Oats soon became oatcakes, which became oat biscuits; limpets soon became fried in their shells and eaten whole; we added the winkles to the oats and wrapped them in kelp; we ate them neat, we tried all we could think of, but I remain unsure of them, what you get for your time really isn’t worth it.
When we arrived it took us a long time to decide where to build our shelter, going through several options. I am glad we chose where we did, even when the weather was raging outside the hollow where we built our shelter always seemed to remain calm. We were ambitious in our plans, but building a shelter big enough to sleep 6 is a bigger task than imagined, so in some ways the loss of half the party was a good thing. Although we never finished the entire shelter I think what we achieved was pretty brilliant: we had a thatched lean-too, a turf roofed fire break to reflect heat into the shelter, woven walls and a reed floor… not bad for a week’s work. There is still plenty of room for additions and improvements if anyone would like to head out and continue what we started!
I would recommend the experience to anyone, just be safe and know what you are getting yourself into! We had emergency equipment with us which thankfully we didn’t have to use – apart from the Mountain Bothy which we used as a sauna on our last evening……
Thanks to everyone who came; Harry, Chris, Marco, James and Rich. I am thoroughly looking forward to our next adventure!
If you are still reading then here is the finished film:Follow @trailtoanywhere
Someone once asked me why I travel, why spend money going off to other countries when you can see it all in stunning HD on your television, leaving your sofa only to boil the kettle or grab some more snacks? I can see their point: you may see far more amazing things on National Geographic than if you spend two weeks in the Amazon or Serengeti. But does that really count as experience? I guess it was this comment that inspired this rather ridiculous and quite painful 4 days.
We spent a lot of time on the road rehearsing our answers to the above question. We were even told we should write a book, so I guess we were getting somewhere. No it is not for charity, no we are not training for something, it is a comment on the beige: why sit at home watching TV on your sofa when there is so much out there to experience? When you get back to the office and someone asks what you did over the weekend would you rather discuss the football, the series you watched on a huge television whilst simultaneously tweeting and facebooking from tablet and phone, making sure you never miss a beat of modern life, or would you rather tell the story of how you joined a group of friends, hooked into some seatbelts, and towed your Sofa across southern England? I choose the latter.
In 4 days’ walking from Bournemouth to Brighton we covered 100 miles with our sofa. Thanks to everyone who came down for the weekend: my blistered feet and sore knees might not have made it to the end without you all – turns out 100 miles is quite a long way!
I have been on a lot of treks and expeditions over the past few years but this was a new experience for me. Not only was it the longest distance I have ever walked, but it was also along tarmac roads. This was great in some ways: instead of huddling under a soggy rock drinking tepid thermos tea, you can simply pull over for a cappuccino and a slice of chocolate cake, actually sit on the thing you are dragging and relax for a while. This had its drawbacks too, the endless possibilities of places to eat, for a start: how to decide? Later in the journey it became worse, having sat down on the sofa it was extremely difficult to get off it again. Jumping off a moving sofa when your legs have seized up…. not a good look! Luckily, someone invented the drive-through!!
A few Tweets I discovered on my return home…. (googling yourself: not a good look either):
“On my way back from the petrol station and nearly run over two boys pulling a sofa along the road.Can this week get any weirder?”
“Just drove past two men dressed as donkeys running along the road dragging a sofa on wheels..what?”
“Walking in the middle of barrack road holding up traffic pulling a sofa, sorry what?”
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
Sofa In The News
Sofa At Film Festivals
I was recently asked by friend and aspiring artist James Trundle to help with and document the installation of his latest sculpture. After hearing more about his concept, there was no way I could pass up the chance to be a part of the project.
James is now studying at The Slade School of Fine Art in London, but graduated form Durham University with a First class degree in Natural Science and obtained a distinction in his foundation year at Central St. Martins College of Art before being accepted to The Slade.
His current work tries to fuse these two facets of his training: the academic and the creative. He is particularly interested in the void created by “the demise of religion” and whether or not art is a valid substitute for faith. His most recent projects are aimed at creating alien compositions within a landscape, installations which are temporary and later only exist as thought (and incredulity)-provoking photos. Compositions that should probably remain in the realms of photoshop are physically brought into being in these installations.
Lost and isolated on a stack, with a bridge stretching tentatively to the mainland, this composition is intended as a questioning device; is the businessman trying to escape? Is he being rescued? Why is he there? Is that where he belongs? It is not simply an alien and unexpected composition but also the vehicle for a metaphorical narrative commenting on the state of the economy and of art itself. James’ recent experiments with self portraits also beg questions about the loneliness of the artist and their position of limbo between art and business: is today’s modern art more about business than art? You can interpret the piece in many ways, and it should have a different meaning for each viewer. Art should be more than instant explanations and answers in the palm of your hand. Rather, it is each individual’s experience of the composition which, to me, makes the piece art.
On a similar theme to the bridge, we hung a 10ft disk in the centre of Durdle Door Arch. The whole Installation was carried out in one night, with the disk being removed by three in the morning and no sign of it left behind. Not everything went to plan, the disk took a dip in the sea, rendering the electrics completely useless. Backlighting was instead achieved by abseiling behind the madly flapping disk with a head torch. The strong wind meant that the disk was moving so much that it is hardly visible in the two minute Exposure necessary to capture the scene.
For more information about the Artist please visit his website : www.havefaithinart.net