We had an interesting and enlightening start to our tour in Africa, and after sweating buckets on the lowlands, we were looking forward to the mild and scenic highlands.
Feels like Europe
We managed to continue on a network of tarmacked side roads to Thika, a city north of Nairobi with a big supermarket that excited us. From here, we were able to take a road bypassing Nairobi and heading to Naivasha on the other end. This road also climbed up to 2600 m, an altitude that was high enough for pine trees to dominate, making the scenery feel much like a forest in Europe. People here wore jackets and wollen hats and the evenings were chilly enough for us to put on jackets as well. A request to camp at a church was quickly followed by an invitation to someones home again and we really enjoyed all their hospitality.
As we descended from this plateau into the rift valley, where tectonics is literally splitting Africa apart, we decided to check in to a campsite on lake Naivasha. Costing us KES1200 a night, this was definitely a more upscale establishment catering to foreign tourists. A big truck was parked there, which ferried over a dozen white people around to many places in Africa. Esentially a tour bus, but with tents instead of a hotel every night. A short talk to these people revealed that they had very little contact with the actual country and its people, being driven around national parks and spending the nights at gated camp sites like this. An interesting experience, but we think our future nights will not involve many of these places.
Incredibly tough dirt roads
Our original plan would’ve taken us slowly to the shores of lake Victoria from here, but since we enjoyed the climate of the highlands, I modified our route. So we took off on a smaller road to Nyahururu. Another connection on a dirt road was unavoidable between there and the town of Marigat, but I didn’t think this would pose a big problem.
The first bit wasn’t, and we got another bit of great hospitality by a resident Italian priest. The road then dropped right into the rift valley though and became really steep and rough. Often our bikes were bumping down on 20% grades over football sized rocks which formed this “road”. It was really scenic though.
As we reached the flatter rift valley I thought the suffering was mostly over, but no. Giant mud puddles took the width of the road and there was no way around them. While wading through them with our tires halfway submerged in the mud was bad enough, on one occasion I tried to lift my bike to a dry section on the edge of the road. My feet slowly lost grip and the weight of the bike pushed me slowly into the mud, submerging me and half of the bike. A pannier also fell in and got full of muddy water. Some also got into my handlebar bag and on my passport…
I could only shout “Scheiße” and drag myself out. I rarely felt so miserable. All the while people still came along and curiously asked the foreigner “How are you?” It’s a bit of a stupid question, I’m covered in mud and have visible disgust on my face. I answer “terrible”. But Kenyans are helpful after all. They mentioned there is a missionary church nearby where I could wash everything. We thanked them and made our way there.
On the gate, a woman was just locking up. I approached her with “We need help” and explained the situation. She understood and opened the gate again, showing me a well. I was able to take reasonably clean water from there using a bucket on a rope and start the slow process of cleaning myself. We also assessed the damage. My passport and vaccination certificate had mud on most pages, but everything was still readable. The pannier that got mud inside had mostly food in it. Whatever was in plastic was fine, but we had to throw out everything that was not. The other panniers sealed well. The bikes needed a scrub.
It got dark while we were still cleaning. A man on a motorcycle came over and introduced himself as father Tom, who manages the building. He was very sympathetic to our situation and assured us we could stay in a room and the caretakers would cook dinner and breakfast for us, all free of charge. “You didn’t want to be in this situation and needed help, so let us do the best we can to help”. Kenyan hospitality at its finest.
It took until midday to clean everything enough so we could ride again. Tom showed me on the map which track to take to avoid further mud and we followed his suggestion. It worked and soon enough we even found a tarmac road to Marigat. A truck with a Swiss license plate there caught our attention. We found the owners nearby, who had taken it around the world for nearly a decade and are already their third year in Africa. Fantastic!
While the roads the next few days were all tarmac, the climbing was tough. From 1000 to 2000 m, down to 1200 and up to 2300 m again. Stunning scenery, but as we neared the western edge of the rift valley in Iten, our legs were begging for a rest. Iten is known as “Home of Champions”, because of a large number of long distance runners training here. A cycling club is also resident here and one of those cyclists already accompanied us on the way up. We payed them a visit and they gladly let us stay there for the rest of the day and night.
Now on the flatter plateau we made quick progress towards Kitale and the border with Uganda. We were slowly running out of cash, so a guesthouse was out of the question. After asking, a group of locals let us camp in their garden. Some of them work abroad and just returned home for Christmas. We had interesting talks with them and they were great hosts. They were also obviously a bit more wealthy than the surrounding neighborhood so it lead to some people coming over and asking for some cash.
As far as I’ve heard, and they confirmed this, this is a Pan-African problem. If you have more than your peers, you’re expected to share. We as foreign travelers are by default expected to have more, so often at least once a day a request for money comes along. It may have made sense and was necessary for survival in hunter-gatherer societies, but now it’s only contributing to poverty. If our hosts gave these people something, they would’ve spent it on a beer and rely even more on outside support. This goes much further: In much of Africa, birth rates are very high. Foreign aid, “for the children in Africa” only makes this problem worse since people don’t have any incentive to have less babies less when white man comes along and takes care (as is expected of them). Also, African expats are usually expected to provide and send money to their relatives at home as soon as they set foot in Europe or elsewhere. The requests sometimes get so bad that they break contact with their families. Me and our hosts agreed that this is a big problem and hard to fix the culture. For now, we can only keep refusing such requests.
Towards the Border
Halfway from Kitale to the border, the road became dirt. This was expected, but might not remain for long anymore, as a Chinese company was preparing to pave it. We spent our last night in Kenya in a primary school, where the teacher, although very friendly, was requesting me to find a donor for the school. True, its condition was miserable, but I couldn’t help to be reminded of our talk with yesterday’s hosts. Why should a donor support this school and not others? Even worse, the government will think “Oh, since foreign donors are supporting schools, we don’t need to do it. Even better, if the aid projects stop, we can point the finger at evil foreigners denying our kids education.” Perhaps the only sustainable way to improve such a situation is to give low interest loans – not donations – to the relevant ministries with lots of strings attached on how to use these loans. This is essentially what China is doing for road and railway construction, minus the “low interest” part…
As we experienced so far, conditions were poorer and begging more frequent where the road was unpaved. This made us look forward more to the next country, Uganda. We really, really enjoyed Kenya though. It was a fantastic and fascinating experience and a great choice for our first African country to cycle in. We definitely wish to come back one day.
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