Black Mamba Safari
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!