The words will just come to me. They should. They always have. With every ride I go for, the experience gives birth to a story so interesting that I can’t fail to write about it. But this one I took too long with. I didn’t even know I would ever write it yet the experience was one of a kind…and I’ve talked about it over and over again to those around me. It starts like this: I once cycled up Mt. Kenya…
So a few weeks ago I saw a tweet by Kenya Wildlife Service that a bunch of super-crazy downhill mountain bikers were in the country for what’s possibly the most epic cycling adventure on Mt. Kenya – Attempting to summit the mountain. The tweet showed Danny Macaskill, Hans Rey and Gerald (people I only watch on YouTube) standing at the gate of Mt. Kenya National Park. Immediately after, they would attempt Mount Kilimanjaro!! Not even the Mt. Kenya 10to4 Challenge can reach this level of craziness. Nor would Baiskeli Adventures‘ C2C meet this threshold. But let it be known too, that I once cycled up Mt. Kenya.
Tony called. He said he has a race in Norway. An off road race. Technical, he said it was and not everyone who starts it often finishes. Not because the whole race is challenging but it has its short, near-impossible sections that throw you off guard (or off your bike). Tony has had one of those “off-his-bike” incidences which rendered him unconscious for a few minutes. But being the ardent cyclist (built like a fighter bull anyway), he’s ready to fight back. He has to complete the race this year (2016). So what does he need? A high altitude training. And why call me? Because a few months prior, I cycled to Nanyuki from Nairobi then around the Mt. Kenya region. That’s where I first heard of the possibility of cycling up Mt. Kenya. Some local cyclists have done it, so why not us?!
Packed and ready, we drive the stretch to Nanyuki from Nairobi. All along I regale Tony with stories of my solo ride towards the Mt Kenya area. Of the places I slept (or bonked) and the places I ate. Of the fears I had going so fast downhill with crazy crosswinds almost dragging me into the bushes and the village down the escarpment. He was the one who had warned me about the Kagocho climb just before Karatina and true to his words, that was the most testing stage of my course those many months ago. But on this day, we were going for something bigger. We were facing Mt. Kenya.
In her majesty, this is the most iconic mountain in the whole country. All year round hikers train on hills and smaller mountains such as the Ngong Hills, the Aberdares, Ugali/Sleeping Warrior and many more just to get ready to climb Mt. Kenya. I’m no hiker unfortunately but I’ve always had this burning desire to just wake up one morning and go climb Mt. Kenya. I never knew it would come so soon in my life having only successfully “summited” the Nandi Hills, Iten and Kagocho (by bike). Nothing much in comparison to what awaited in Nanyuki.
We got to this chilly town in the late afternoon and checked into Ten Man Cider Camp and Holiday Home (Two men in a Ten Man Camp, ironic right?). We were still very very excited about what lay ahead. We couldn’t keep calm. This was not the day for cycling up Mt. Kenya but we needed to cycle nonetheless. So we went for a spin in the Mt. Kenya Forest and some parts of the Animal Sanctuary.
Easy ride, I think. Tony is heaving though – altitude sickness. He is asthmatic. He carries around some pills. Before we started the ride he categorically told me what to do in case he gets one of those attacks. I’m silent but a little scared. He doesn’t know this as I try urging him up the road to Mt. Kenya Safari Club. I know he may not be the best climber but this brother can descend like a bolder thrown off a cliff (told you he is built like a bull). So I know I may shine on our way up but I would have to play catch up on the return leg.
Anyway, after our short ride, we sit at Mt. Kenya Safari Club for a late evening tea before returning to camp. Then I receive a phone call. Strange number, who could this be? Oliver Bent!! One of the ardent cyclists I know through Facebook. And what business does he have calling me today? Turns out, he and Alex Tibwitta (another name that I had heard in the Kenya cycling circles for far too long but never met), are in Laikipia County as well. They are tired of chasing or being chased by elephants deep in the bundus and now they want a piece of the action we are (or will be) having. Word on social media spreads fast!! Well, I tell them where we are camping and agree to meet there.
Back at Ten Man Camp, the now four men take a drive out to the nearest restaurant with WiFi. Tony and I had paid for self-catering but hey, the thought of pizza and Wi-Fi was way more enticing. Plus Alex and Oliver wanted to upload their latest routes onto Strava. It’s said, if it isn’t on Strava then it (the ride) didn’t happen. I personally don’t use Strava much but I knew that our attempt up Mt. Kenya must be recorded on Strava!
The next morning, the Mt. Kenya day, we woke up early. Took whatever breakfast we could (nothing much at camp because we knew there are small roadside hotels where we intended to start the ride). Sirmon Gate. That was our entry point into Mt. Kenya National Park and up the mountain. But first, a 9km gradual climb which hits a crescendo just metres before the park’s gate. We are joined by David Rider (as he calls himself). He leisurely cycled from home to the start point while we drove!!
Several chapatis and cups of tea later, we are ready to go – we think so. Doubt still lingers in our minds: are we really doing this? Alex has done it before apparently. David is the local cyclist who kinda uses this as his training grounds. Mad props boss! And he doesn’t mince his words in describing the task ahead. Oliver is optimistic. He loves a challenge and this one is perfectly right up his alley. He wants to attempt it twice in the same day! Yaani, cycle up and down Mt. Kenya twice!! Ask me later if he did it. As for me, I still have no idea what awaits but I know I’m looking forward to the adventure.
Up, up, up! Gradually at first. We can still play with hard gears a bit. The Batian peak is looming, visibly glistening in the morning sun. It almost seems like it’s beckoning us or merely daring us to come any closer. I’m certainly no Danny Macaskill and I’m certain none of the other four men are anywhere close. So as pretty white and innocent looking as Peak Batian may have seemed, we weren’t going anywhere past 3300m above sea level. That’s Old Moses Camp. The first camp for most hikers on this route. It’s only 18km from the main road but it would take us a little over 2 hours to complete it.
First the dirt road escorts you up the first half to the main gate. Loose little pebbles every once in a while fly off your rear tyre as you grind tour way up. Gasping for the little and thin oxygen in the air around you. Sweat trickling down your face, cold! You’re cycling side by side with someone but no one is talking. You can only communicate but matching your cadence to one another. Creating harmony with every push of the pedal and wringing out a tune with your tyres spinning on the dirt or the free wheel cassette. Birds of all kinds flap their wings or sing out high up on the tree canopies. But even the keen bird watcher in you doesn’t feel for a moment, the need to look up and identity the noise maker. Silence reins again, occasionally interrupted by a bodaboda motorcycle or the lone car. Listening to your breathing and heart beat. Shut up legs, let’s keep moving!!
It’s getting steeper, thought we had seen the worst already. We have no idea how much further to the gate yet. Oliver and I are ahead of the pack and I’m feeling super stoked that I’m keeping up with this cycling freak! Both of us are on granny gears and we are grinding our butts off! Then the hill gets a little more steep. I can’t feel my bike moving. The legs are screaming and I’m unable to quiet them down this time. So we take a short break and in disguise wait for Alex and the rest. Turns out we were only a hundred metres from the gate!
Once at the gate, we take our first major break. All five of us are here and thanks to Alex’s charm, some ladies nearby gladly serve us tea. It’s too cold up here yet the Sun is shining. David looks around at our seemingly tired selves and goes “bado hamjapanda!” (You haven’t climbed yet!).
Here is the thing. I was very much aware that we were only halfway to the destination. And yes I was quite aware that we were on Mt. Kenya and that definitely meant climbing. But I don’t think I was ready to be reminded of how steep a climb I still had ahead of me. I felt like boxing the guy. Grabbing him nicely by the collar of his tight cycling jersey and knocking some sense into his head. But I couldn’t do that. I had to save all my energy for the next section that he so generously had just warned us about. Still, I boxed him in my head and I was happy with that.
How much did we pay at the gate again? I can’t remember. We were charged for the bikes as well. It was a bit hefty a price especially for Oliver who wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have his alien card. Once again, Alex’s charm came in handy!
Starting the climb for the next 9km felt like starting the ride all over again. We had rested for quite a while and got comfortable. The warm tea may have numbed and fooled our minds of what still lay ahead. Painful at first as we looked for the rhythm but soon after, we were cruising again. Oliver and I leading once again but this time not for long. David joins us and slowly the tempo increases. David is still on hard gears while I’m looking for anything else softer than my granny gears – a great granny maybe?
It didn’t take too long before the two, Oliver and David, left me. My nose was paining from the strained breathing. Less and less oxygen was available and in order to avoid any complications, I took two short rests. All the while I’m praying and hoping that neither Alex nor Tony catches up…and neither an elephant nor buffalo (whose hoof prints were still visible on the freshly tarmacked road up to Old Moses Camp).
Then as if I had risen from the dead, I felt a new surge of energy. My legs and lungs, heart and head got recharged and fully powered for the last few kilometres. All around, i could see the most interesting shrubbery of different colors, mostly pale green and the black tarred road cut through like the biblical narrow road to heaven.
Curve with it. I did. Look around for any wild animals. I did. Take photos for the memory. Oh yes I did! Keep your head low when the climb gets too hard, it’s a sign of respect for the gods of the uphill task. That I did too. And finally at Old Moses Camp!!
Rakesh the Third! The third man in our five man peloton to make it to the finish. Can I get a soda please? A photo too possibly before I start looking down the road waiting for Tony and Alex…and marveling at the beauty below!! Two hours thirty minutes, I made it to the top with two stops en route. Going downhill will be a piece of cake, I think (but I don’t like cycling 29ers on downhills). I still have the scars I earned earlier on in the year when I came flying off a 29er on a rough downhill. I lost my “center bolt” for a few weeks.
A few minutes later, the five men rattled down the steep descent back to the main road. Alex was the first one down the road – spinning, twisting and turning like the pro he is while I held on to my brakes for the most part of the descent lest I lose myself.