Towards the end of last year (2015), a bunch of cyclists (myself included) were embarking on one of the craziest and toughest Baiskeli Adventure so far: cycling over 600km from Nairobi to Mombasa over Christmas period to raise funds for Child of Mercy Orphanage Centre. The orphanage needed support in finishing the constructions they had started for a new dormitory and we (the adventure hungry cyclists), for lack of anything better to do, needed the challenge.
Day One – Nairobi to Kitui
So on a bright Tuesday morning (the 22nd day of December, the year of our Lord 2015) a group of nineteen cyclists convened near Nyayo Stadium along Mombasa road for what was to be a whole four days of saddle time. All the pleasantries exchanged, we hit the road at half past seven. The sun was indeed smiling upon us and the morning breeze kissed our faces as we maneuvered the ever present morning traffic on Mombasa road.
Before long, we were on Kangundo road dodging potholes and watching out for sand-loaded lorries which ply that route. I was the last person having chosen to let everyone lead first because I believed I had the power to catch up…always! Bad move! Especially since I had not taken breakfast that morning partly because of too much excitement (and a little bit of stupidity). I mean, who goes out to cycle 160km on an empty stomach? Yes, day one (Nairobi to Kitui) was 160km…and the hills on that road…just wait, I will tell you!
So about 30km into the ride, I stopped the bus for some bananas. Did you know bananas are a cyclist’s best friend? They come in handy just about any time when the body is too weak but the mind is still willing to push on. I gobbled down two bananas and just like that, I was alive again! Well, just alive enough to catch up with the rest at the first official snack and water point.
Looking at the faces all around, I could see a mix of excitement, anxiety, pure disbelief and hope. Excitement maybe because it was the Christmas season (yippee, Santa is coming). Anxious because it was the first day of the long tour and nobody knew what awaits in the next 500+km. Disbelief because, as one of us put it, we were just ordinary people doing something extraordinary. But of course we were hopeful that “we gon’ make it men! We gon’ ace it!” – Maganjo Kimani.
Every man/woman and their muscle power for themselves, the road for us all!! The gaps started widening with the leading bunch proudly calling themselves Team Mercedes. The rest were either Team Probox or Team Nduthi (Motorbike). Caste system in cycling for sure! But the love remained.
At the second refueling stop, we had our lunch in preparation for the assault on the climbs to Kitui. That was in Mwala where we joined the tarmac road after a short off-road stint from Kangundo town. For the first time since the start point, we got to see each other for a while (maybe longer than necessary) before realigning ourselves into our cycling castes one more time.
Team Mercedes maintained the lead and met the treacherous climb on Yatta Plateau first. This is the kind of hill that makes you want to quit cycling, especially if you are new to biking. It starts out easy having come down flying from the opposite direction. You see the road curving up the hill on a gentle-looking slope. So you realign your position on the saddle, shift your gears to a comfortable spin, lower your head and keep pedaling hoping that when you lift your eyes again, the pain would be through.
But alas! One corner turns to about four others! Each revealing what seems to be another gentle slope, only it’s not gentle on your thighs…nor on your will to continue. Kabuga aka Boogieman, one of the cyclists, had had enough of this madness by the second bend and I found him sitting on a stone by the roadside waiting for the bus. I cannot blame him at all because this deceptive climb only gets worse the higher you go. Dismounting and pushing your bike is even harder than just grinding uphill.
I remember the previous year on my solo tour along the same road (and having been lied to that it was downhill to Kitui), I could only manage to cycle at 6kph. I had my panniers then (2014) so this time, I wanted to average at least 10kph.
Up the hill I caught up with Susan, aka Villageur, who ironically prefers spinning uphill to coasting downhill! She was in her element, pushing down those pedals like she was igniting some motor. Like the harder she pedal, the higher the chances of her bike’s hidden engine coming to life. But she made it to the top. Jeff and Sam half cycled and half walked up the “Katangi Lung Buster” (our inaugural name for the climb) and rejoined us at the top. The Boogieman also eventually made it up and joined the Big Boys.
“Are we really cycling to Mombasa?” one of the cyclists asked. “Geographically, we should be going downhill not up like we are heading to Mount Kenya!” I understood the concern and explained that this particular hill (and a few others before Kitui) was only there to make the ride a little more exciting. But their faces did not register the excitement I was talking about right away. It was all sweat and pain with another 60km between us and Kitui.
For many of the cyclists who were still at the back, this was a breaking point. The point where one rethinks their choices in life and wonder whether it was smart to choose sweaty cycling pain over parties and Christmas goodies. One Bouke, aka Oyibo, took this moment to curse the hill in all the languages he could speak and when that did not move it, he got off the bike and lay by the roadside waiting for the rescue bus.
However uncertain and painful day one seemed, the idea of putting a smile on the orphans’ faces on Christmas refueled all of us. Of course the home cooked dinner that night at Musyoki’s place was so heavenly and highly needed that by the second plate, we had all forgotten the day’s struggles and looked forward to the next day with renewed hope.