Kyle in Lake Assal, Djbouti

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Final Days in Kenya, First days in Tanzania

Day 55: Kiambu to Kikuyu to Kisserian, Kenya

After a week spent in and around Nairobi, it was time to hit the road. Every time I take a long break, it seems so difficult to start moving again. At least Kilimanjaro is close, giving me a bit of a morale boost. Yesterday I was tuning up my bicycle and realized that my rear derailleur cable had snapped at the shifter. It needs to be replaced. I called a local bike mechanic, David Kinjah, and asked if it would be possible to replace it on a Sunday. He told me to come on over in the morning.

I left the house in Kiambu around 7am to make it to Kikuyu where David lives by 9. It’s only about 22km, but I was doing it with only my front 3 gears to play with. The ride was slow and exhausting. My legs burned as I pushed up the hills. I had locked the derailleur into one gear so the chain wouldn’t skip, but in hindsight I should have put it in a lower gear.

I didn’t know how to find David’s house, so I called him upon arrival in Kikuyu. He told me to find the kids on bikes and they’ll take me too him. I kind of laughed, thinking I’d never know which kids he was talking about. As I rounded a corner, I saw 20 boys and girls in helmets, proper riding clothes, and wearing ‘Safari Simbaz’ riding jerseys. ‘Oh, THOSE boys’ I thought to myself. They were expecting me, and took me right to David’s house.

The house is an average Kenyan home with a few rooms. However, David lives in one room with his wife and child, and the remaining 4 rooms are full of bicycles, parts, clothing, tools, and maps. This guy is stocked. He has a few wealthy clients in Nairobi, and he was assembling a brand new Cannondale bike with a Lefty Fork, which I had never seen before. He was assembling the hydraulic disc brakes and converting the tires to tubeless. Seeing all this made his skills and knowledge immediately apparent.

David Kinjah replacing my gear cable at his home near Nairobi

He took one look at my bike and went to work. While effortlessly replacing my cable, he told me about all the boys that were around. He grew up interested in cycling, which kept him away from the temptations of alcohol and partying, and introduced him to an active lifestyle. He credits cycling for a lot of the good things in his life. He’s trying to pass on his love to the boys. Being a self-taught mechanic, he takes a lot of time to teach the boys how bikes are assembled, how to maintain them properly, and also how to organize and take core of all the tools he has acquired over the years. He hopes that by teaching the boys a useful skill, they can transfer the lessons to everyday life. A few of the boys were little prodigies, never a step behind David as he dove into the project of repairing my bike with a surgeon’s precision.

After he finished the cable, I showed him a wobble in my rear axle. His only reaction was ‘Uh Oh!’ I thought I was just having trouble keeping the axel tightened. If I tightened it enough to remove the wobble, the cassette would pinch against the frame. It was confusing to me. David knew exactly what the problem was.

He said the bike was unsafe and couldn’t let me ride away on it. He then started ripping my rear wheel apart. He took out the axel, then the bearings from one side, and then showed me why ‘Uh Oh’ was an understatement. The other side of the hub had no bearings. It had shrapnel. The bearings were broken, pulverized into dust, and mixed with grease. He removed the debris and showed me the hub itself. It was no longer smooth and circular, it was splintered and jagged. Yes, ‘Uh Oh!’

Ruined rear wheel hub

The hub was ruined. I kept telling him that I only have 400km to go. I’m not pushing to Cape Town. He told me I won’t make it to Tanzania.

David sprang into action, rummaging through one of his many store rooms. He emerged with an old wheel. It was the same size, same number of spokes, and with some modification could support my cassette. I wanted to keep the cassette because it has a big climbing gear on it which has come in handy in many big hills.

David Kinjah putting my cassette onto a different wheel

While working on my wheel, David insisted that I have lunch and tea. I sat in his living room watching the Oprah Winfrey Show with his wife. Less than an hour later, the wheel was done. He mounted it on my bike. It was smooth and true. I couldn’t believe it. This guy is good.

I felt bad since I had tied up his entire Sunday morning. I was ready to pay him and ride off, but instead he rounded up the boys, put on his Green Goblin cycling clothes, and said ‘Let’s go for a ride’. He and the boys took me through the winding dirt roads of Kikuyu, all the way to the tarmac road out of town and toward Tanzania. This is a man who loves cycling. He’s a skilled mechanic and talented rider. I was impressed with him in every way. If you’re a cyclist traveling through Nairobi, you need to go to his website and get ahold of him. Whether you need a repair, tips on good cycling routes, contact with other riders in the area, or just talk shop, he’s the man you want. Good hearted and talented.

David Kinjah, Kyle Henning, and the boys
Riding away from Nairobi with the boys from David's shop
After breaking away from the group, I was on my own again. I pushed through the towns of Ngong and Kisserian to a potholed junction road. David told me of a campsite, so I ignored my hunger and sleepiness and rode to the camp. There are no landmarks, but the camp is just off this road somewhere between Kisserian and Isinya. I found the camp, pulled in, and was able to pitch my tent for about $3 USD. There were some young Kenyans having a party, so I joined them for food and beer. It was a good end to a long day.

Campsite in southern Kenya

Day 56: Camp to Namanga (Tanzania border)

The previous day felt very long, so I slept in a bit. I slowly packed up my camp and peddled toward the road at 9am. As I reached the end of the drive and joined the tarmac, an American man was peddling by on a bicycle with only one small bag. I yelled ‘Hey!’, and he jokingly replied ‘You! Ferenji! Give money!’ I see he’s ridden through Ethiopia.

His name is Gabe. We immediately started riding together and chatting about our trips. His is quite different from mine. He is a staff member / bike mechanic / EMT for the Tour D’Afrique bicycle race and expedition from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa. Today it was his responsibility to ride in the back of the 80-person convoy in case anyone broke down and needed a mechanic. I was extremely happy to have someone to ride with. We caught up with a pair of riders, one of whom was having trouble with his front wheel. Gabe helped him sort it out, and the four of us were on our way. One rider was from Ethiopia, so we had a great chat about the country.

Tour D’Afrique is an amazing logistical feat. The tour supports 80 riders, some of whom are racing each day for a cumulative time. All their food is provided, and the staff ride ahead in one of 5 support vehicles to set up lunch and snacks along the road. They sleep in camps every night and live a very communal existence as they cycle 12,000 km to South Africa. The vehicles can carry sick or injured riders, spare parts, food, water, and all the supplies. I caught up to the lunch truck where a buffet of sandwich goodies was laid out in front of me. The simple selection looked like a feast to me. I chatted with some of the riders and ate like a king.

We pushed on, being at the end of the pack. They were going all the way to Namanga on the Tanzania border. I hadn’t planned to go that far today (about 120 km from where I camped), but figured it’s better to ride with company, so I pushed to the border.

The staff welcomed me, let me pitch my tent amongst the dozens already set up, and invited me to have dinner with them. I didn’t have a plate or any kind of eating utensils, so I ate dinner out of my frisbee with my bare hands. Improvise! The food was basic, but very good for riding. I ate until I hurt.

Tour D'Afrique camp in Namanga, Kenya
I stayed up late chatting with some interesting people. One guy is from Buffalo, NY. Represent! He grew up in Williamsville, so we had a little Northtowns / Southtowns rivalry. Then we bonded over the Sabres, the Pearl Street Grille, and Campus Wheel Works so all was fine. There was a girl who had ridden across the US three times with an organization partnered with Habitat for Humanity called ‘Bike-and-Build’. She even knew a friend of mine from AmeriCorps who had also done a summer with them. A third American was telling me stories about climbing a 7,000+ meter peak in India and motorcycling across Tibet. I couldn’t walk away from these conversations. They were all so fascinating. I love stories from the road.

Bikes everywhere
At about 1030 pm, we were all exhausted but had to go to sleep. The next day was a 115km ride across the border to Tanzania and to the city of Arusha. I planned to ride the whole way with them.

Tour D’Afrique seems incredible to me. The fact that they can move so many people across a continent where logistics are an inherent nightmare is amazing. Some of the riders were a bit in awe of me traveling unsupported and solo, but to counter that, they were keeping a very fast and hard riding schedule. I’m impressed that they’re going 12,000 km. I’m only going 3,000. Also, they do it in 4 months, averaging 100km per day, including rest days. I’ve averaged less than 50km per day. Also, if they fall behind, the group keeps moving. Each rider has to meet the day’s goal or succumb to the embarrassment of riding to camp in one of the vehicles. There’s no wiggle room to get sick, take a personal day, or change the route. Every rider is locked in to the schedule set by Tour D’Afrique months before they ever leave. There are things to be admired about my expedition and theirs. To each his own. It was such a pleasant surprise to meet this group, and a great way to end my time in Kenya.

Tanzania, my fourth and final country!

Day 57: Namanga to Arusha

I woke up with the Tour D’Afrique crowd at about 530am. I wanted to catch the free breakfast at 6am. We peddled 3km to the border. My info might be a little outdated, but I had read that the Namanga border can be a hassle with officials asking for bribes, so I was happy to cross with almost 100 people. The officials were a bit stunned and just pushed us through as fast as possible. It was simple.

Karibu Tanzania!
Namanga had nothing on the Tanzania side as far as ATM machines or places to buy sim cards, so we all pushed on. Five minutes into the ride, I realized I had left my tent in the no-man’s-land border area, toward the Kenya side. I had to unstrap it to get at my passport and accidentally rode off without it. I rode back to the border, and the officials on both sides were cool enough to let me ride in, grab my tent, and ride out again. Maybe the horror stories are dead wrong.

Tour D'Afrique cyclists after crossing the border
I rode with Megan most of the day, the girl from Bike-and-Build. We were content to be nearly last and take our time. Despite feeling a bit slow, we made it to Arusha (115km away) by 230pm. I was able to get a comically large stack of cash from the ATM ($1 USD = 1,500 TZ Shillings) and get a sim card in town. I had a contact to stay with in Arusha, but I wanted to see where TD’A was staying since they were all taking 3 days off. I rode to their camp, got off the bike, and was ready to collapse. I called my contact who lives 15km back toward Namanga and told him I don’t have the energy to ride back. He understood and came out to camp to visit.

My contact is a family member in a roundabout way. Back in the US, my cousin is married to a man from Rwanda. His brother is Janvier, who lives in Arusha. We had been emailing for a few weeks and were looking forward to meeting each other. At the same time, the TD’A people were settling in for a good night of drinking and getting rowdy. I was relieved that Janvier was able to visit, but also not offended by my decision to stay and party. We had a good chat. He described how to find his house the next day, and left me to my vices.

Tent city in Arusha, Tanzania
The night was a typical drunken shit-show. I loved it. Everybody was ready to unwind. People were ripping on each other’s countries and riding abilities. I felt so good to throw out responsibility for an evening, even though this seems to be happening more and more these days.

A story came up for the second time since meeting Tour D'Afrique that freaked me out a bit. When their big convoy of cyclists was on the road from Hell (north Kenya), several of them were held at gunpoint and robbed. Shots were even fired to get their attention. Some riders were assaulted, but not too seriously. It was humbling to hear that. They went through just a few weeks after me. I had no bad encounters. Part of that may be that 80 people create quite a stir, and by the time the last riders come through, people have had a chance to organize an attack. Traveling alone, I just go by and the opportunity is gone. I also traveled when there was a lot of rain, so people were less desperate for drinking water. In the end, however, I think I was just lucky.

Day 58: Arusha

I slept in, destroyed the public toilet with my morning-after-beer shits, and hit the road to Janvier’s house. It’s located on the campus grounds of Mt. Meru University where he teaches Psychology. The campus is beautiful. The greenery extends for miles in all directions, and Mt. Meru stands tall and proud behind it. It used to be a Baptist Monastery, and it has a very western feel. It’s about 10km from the center of town, so it’s also very quiet and peaceful.

Janvier showed me the amazing hospitality that makes Africans some of the warmest people I’ve ever met. He made sure I had plenty of food, and gave me my own room and a bed to sleep in. It’s so comforting to stay with someone with whom I share a family connection. I think I’ll enjoy resting here for a few days before making my final push to Moshi, and my final cycling destination – the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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