Most people who visit Kenya explore the country in a Jeep, but the hills, mountains and coastal roads are actually perfect for cycling.
Stage 1: The Savanna
A gray giant lumbers across the sandy track ahead of us. We cycle warily on, but when the massive bull elephant suddenly stops and turns to stare, we get pedaling. We’re in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, a three hours’ drive from the capital, Nairobi. Two rangers have been shadowing us in a Jeep for the past few hours, although they seemed to have fallen asleep. The driver now leaps into action, accelerates, and shouts to us as he pulls past: “Stay behind the car, no one overtakes me!” We seek cover behind the car and pass the elephant in a huddle – with me making myself as small as possible on my mountain bike.
People mostly visit Kenya to see animals – as many and as big as possible – and also to see new landscapes. Most travel in off-road vehicles. Few people know that you can also explore the most interesting parts of the country just as safely on a bike, and get much closer, too. Cycling comes with the additional challenge of rough terrain, bush and dirt roads that are perfect for mountain biking. I want to ride across the Kenyan savanna, into the mountains and down to the coast, where the beaches are said to be some of the best in all of East Africa. Who should I ride with? Only the best, naturally: David Kinjah, 45. A legend in Kenya, he made cycling big in his country and for a time, trained British cyclist Christopher Froome, winner of the Tour de France in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
Our little group – that’s Kinjah, another guide and myself – has now pushed past the elephant. I turn one last time to see him staring after us. We high-five each other and move on.
Kinjah was raised in Mombasa. As a kid, he used to ride down to the beach on an old BMX bike to play soccer with the other boys. At some point, he realized that he loved cycling more than soccer and began tinkering with his bicycle and training over increasingly long distances. At 22, he entered the first races in Kenya, winning most of them. He earned himself a place on the national team, and was the only black contestant in the 2000 World Championship in France. First, bike manufacturer Shimano gave him a sponsorship deal, then the Italian team Index–Alexia Alluminio signed him up as the first black professional cyclist. They called him the Black Lion, leone nero, in Italy, but after a year in Europe he returned to Kenya to promote children’s competitive cycling, which he had started doing long before.
Kinjah clearly recalls the day he took on Chris Froome, whom he describes him as a child of Nairobi with British roots, a white babyface with a tough character and a great ambition: to cycle professionally and someday ride in the Tour de France. Froome has so far won the Tour de France three times and now lives in South Africa.
Fifteen years ago, Kinjah founded the Safari Simbaz Trust in his backyard bicycle workshop. It aims to raise funds to give children from underpriviliged backgrounds a perspective through sport. Kinjah trains his Safari Simbaz – travel lions – as athletes, and as bicycle mechanics. He and his young team sometimes lead cycle tours of Kenya, including one for a cycling club from Stavanger, Norway
Stage 2: The Mountains
Two dozen mountain bikes stand upended outside a guesthouse in the village of Ndunyu Njeru outside Aberdare National Park. The mountain range, some 150 kilometers from Ol Pejeta, is the country’s third-highest elevation after Mount Kenya and a real challenge even for the fittest cyclists. The Safari Simbaz give their bikes a final once-over. Are the gears properly adjusted? Have the chains been oiled? Every last detail must be just right for the climb to almost 3200 meters.
Most of the Norwegians are still eating breakfast, but a few are already clicking down the stairs in their cycling shoes, nervous as young racehorses. We assemble in the yard, where Kinjah describes the terrain we will encounter and outlines his rules. On no account may we overtake the Jeep ahead of us, which the rangers will use to drive away buffalo and elephants if need be.
When Kinjah gives the starting signal, 21 Norwegian tourists and four Kenyan guides swing onto their saddles and are off. I pedal after them. Kilometer after kilometer of grueling ascents in increasingly rarefied mountain air, and despite my best efforts, the group leaves me far behind. I encounter the odd lanky village boy on a “black mamba,” one of those cobbled-together cycles Kenyans use to transport crates of chickens and sacks of flour. I never imagined racing on one of those contraptions to be possible until a guy overtook me, effortlessly and, of course, without gears, while I pedaled furiously on the last sprocket.
In Kenya, the young middle class is discovering the sport
As in many African countries, it’s poor people who ride bicycles in Kenya – only walking is cheaper. But now that the sport is trending, the young middle class has also taken to the saddle. Cyclists meet on the weekend in Nairobi to ride out together to the Ngong Hills (famous from Out of Africa). They ride dusty trails through the bush in the Great Rift Valley and on the slopes of Mount Kenya. It is chiefly thanks to Kinjah that the sport is now able to overcome cultural, but above all social, differences. His credo: “Sport builds self-confidence. It’s what you achieve that counts, not where you come from.”
While I am toiling uphill to the national park, the Norwegians are over the hills and far away. Small wonder – their country consists almost entirely of mountains! To add insult to injury, it is now bucketing down, so I hitch a ride in one of the Jeeps – the advantage being that you don’t get dirty. When the cyclists roll into the valley hours later, they have acquired a patina of mud, but they are all grinning. “It was the world’s most brilliant descent,” the Norwegians rave – they should know. Now I do feel a bit envious after all …
Stage 3: The Coast
The coastal route, almost 700 kilometers south of the Aberdare Mountains, was supposed to be the easiest part of the tour, I thought: a blue-and-white Mark Rothko painting with palms, beaches, people in colorful robes, and exotic spices on street corners. That’s exactly how it is, and everything would be just perfect if it weren’t the dry season and the temperatures weren’t showing 40 degrees Celsius in the shade – and the sun weren’t blazing down onto my crash helmet.
It was still pleasantly cool on Wasini Island just before seven in the morning. The night before, Kinjah and I – the Norwegians are long gone – had crossed over to the coral island close to the Tanzanian border, far from the tourist beaches, to spend the night. The island is too small for cycling and the coral too jagged for our tires, but there are few better spots on the Kenyan coast than Wasini for experiencing something of the Swahili culture.
Feisal Mohamed Abdalla comes from a family of Swahili people whose culture originated with the Arab traders who landed on the East African coast in the 8th century C.E. Many of them mixed with the native Bantu tribes and became the ancestors of the present-day Swahilis. Abdalla and his German wife run a simple lodge on the rocks. He also takes divers and snorkelers to underwater parks in his motorized dow and sometimes, like now, ferries mountain bikers to the mainland. When we heave our bikes off the boat in Shimoni at around half past eight, the air is already so sultry you could cut it with a knife. We pedal up the south coast toward Diani in the north, a bathing spot that’s famous for its white beaches. Riding over shimmering asphalt, through palm groves and mangrove forests, we come to tiny fishing villages and pass by those gigantic baobab trees with the weird branches. Legend has it that God planted them upside down for a joke.
It’s early afternoon and I feel I’m coming down with heat stroke, when Kinjah suddenly turns off the main path. We ride down a sandy lane that winds through bushes as tall as ourselves, and finally arrive at a wooden gate. He dismounts and hammers on the planks. A watchman greets us with a friendly smile and the words “Karibu peponi” – Welcome to paradise. Tucked away in coastal woodland, the Kinondo Kwetu beach resort is truly idyllic. We lounge on sun beds in the shade of the coconut palms, our exertions forgotten, as a waiter serves us ice-cold passion-fruit juice. We’ve certainly earned this!