This idea of cycling Kenya all started with my cousin. Having already spent some time volunteering in Kenya in 2016 my amazing cousin decided to return to volunteer again. This time from November 2016 until March 2017 when during her send-off party she invited me to come visit her. She was staying in a small village community on the island of Lamu on the east coast of Kenya. You can read her GoFundMe page here.
Cycle across Kenya!?
Earlier that year I had decided to change my life priorities – my money and energy are better spent travelling the world by bike; experiencing new places and people. It did not take long for me to realise that my visit to Kenya would involve taking my bike. Initially I planned to fly to the capital, Nairobi, then catch an internal flight to Lamu county finishing with a short boat ride over to Lamu Island. With me barely knowing where Kenya was, let alone these individual place names I started inspecting the map piecing it all together finally resulting in my asking myself, “How many miles is that? Could I cycle it?”
And so it was decided. I would fly to Nairobi and cycle to Lamu returning home from here. This would be my first ever solo bikepacking trip outside of the U.K., I was unbelievably excited and terrified at the same time.
There is very little information online about cycling in Kenya. I found plenty of information about organised cycle tours, bike hire, mountain biking trails and even cycle safaris, that were all either circular routes or isolated excursions. I would love to return to explore these options, but for this trip, information regarding a sustained end-to-end route from Nairobi to the cost and beyond was scarce. Planning the route was not my main concern but the type of supplies available and how often I would find them, the quality and safety of the road and more importantly the likelihood of meeting, or being eaten by, local wildlife.
Over the years I have used many online route planners and more recently I have found the Strava route planner to be the quickest way to plan a route. With its “Use Popularity” setting it creates routes using the millions of Strava activity data it has to easily create routes based on those most commonly used. Although this tool has a few flaws, they are easily negated by its speed and ease of use.
I created a new route from Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Kikoni (this being the furthest point on land you can navigate to using the Strava Planner ). This route was a simple plan A (orange on the map below); it was easy to come up with and -unlike other trips- there were not many alternatives even to consider.
..you’ll hear a lot of “Oh, you’re going to be eaten by a lion” or “sat on by an elephant”
Believing I had decided my route I began looking at accommodation and travel conditions, however, I became a little unsure of my route -it seemed after a couple of days of riding things would become very sparse. So much so there was a section between Bangali and Bura West (the pink segment on the map below), where I had calculated the shortest route was 70 miles with what appeared to be a terrible, if not unusable, road on satellite imagery. I was ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ and the (wannabe) brave explorer in me was still considering it, thinking about additional measures I could take to keep safe. Eventually I decided against it because of something that happened to me in work. You see, everyone likes to poke fun don’t they? friends and work colleagues alike, you’ll hear a lot of “You’re going to be eaten by a lion,” “trampled by an elephant” or “won’t be able to find food and water” or “your bike will be stolen as soon as your plane lands.” All very supportive I’m sure.
Plan-a was much closer to Somalia for at least half of the route! and that’s not really “advised.”
So one day in work a college was saying things to that effect while I tried to defend myself by highlighting that I will always be on a major road where access to friendly local people or busy trucks on long journeys would be readily accessible should I find myself in any crisis situation as well as having a local SIM card to call for help should it be needed, when he said “do they even have mobile signal over there?” To find out, I Googled “Kenya mobile network coverage map” and instantly decided to switch routes since it seemed my first route heading East very rapidly lost any sort of mobile coverage but the road South was covered by it.
Enter into the equation; plan-b (blue on the map above). This route made a hell of a lot more sense despite it being 150 miles longer. The road is busier with more towns and villages which means..
- more shops and supplies,
- more accommodation options,
- easier to hitchhike,
- more locals to speak to for advice if needed,
- and is almost entirely replicated by mobile phone coverage which, assuming there are no emergencies, is great for Instagram updates.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail! (Also, and I’m not sure why this is a footnote: plan-a was much closer to Somalia for at least half of the route! and that’s not really “advised.”)
Accommodation (and Hammock Camping)
My first port of call with any cycle trip is to pack my hammock and camp for free. This is one of those places where you question if that is the best idea. I researched online and it turns out people specifically asking about both “hammocking” and while in “Kenya” are very limited. In fact, there was only one single post on the whole of the internet (that I could find) on the Lonely Planet forum asking about hammocking in many parts of Africa including Kenya, which was very useful. There were no responses from anyone claiming to know the answer, only honest advice and input offering extra information or a new perspective.
A niche group of only two people!
As the post was made 11 months prior I messaged the author to see if he had hammock camped and how he got on and it turned out he was still travelling in Africa and would actually be in Kenya around the same time as me and following a similar schedule to mine.
The internet is a great place for bringing together groups of people with similar interests from across the globe who would never have otherwise met or even spoken, this was an extremely niche group of what would seemed to consist of only two people.
We swapped Instagrams and hoped to meet up for a beer. This would have been really cool. Unfortunately due to my own poor effort as well as disabling Instagram notifications as part of a “digital detox” attempt, I completely missed his most recent message saying he was in Mombasa.
In fact I didn’t see his message for about three weeks after I had returned home to the UK!
When he sent his message I was cycling my third day and would have arrived that evening in Voi. From there I would have been two days away from Mombasa had I stuck to my proposed route, but as it happens I took a detour and avoiding the city of Mombasa based on a friend’s advice. I suppose this is the joy of having flexibility on the road though it is a shame we didn’t meet. You never know, our paths might cross once more in the future.
After finding that route planning was made simple by both few options and key factors, I still felt very much in the dark about what to expect on the roads. The first thing I discovered was that Kenya does not have Street View, a tool I find very useful when scoping out routes ahead of a trip. This upset me. The next best thing on Google Maps is intermittently scattered, user submitted photospheres. These are 360° panoramic photos that are fully interactive allowing you to pan around and look in any direction from a single point. While there are only a small number of these they gave me an idea of the different road conditions and traffic I might find.
Although, I’m not going to lie, some of these made me more nervous. I was cycling into the unknown alone and this highlighted it to me further. Here are some examples.
The left shows the main highway I would need to take at the beginning of my journey and, while not busy, there are three lanes and no pavement to be seen, not even a hard shoulder. I could’ve avoided the highway but I was keen to make quick progress at the start and this was the way to do it. Alternative roads lead me to the second image in the middle which looks very busy and crowded. If you look carefully you can see there is actually traffic in two directions, bordered by a hard concrete wall to one side and what looks like a drop into a river on the other, with a broken and battered fence for protection interspersed with pedestrians filling every available space.
These weren’t the greatest findings and once again added to the nerves about my trip. Fear not!! I decided not to worry about such things and experience them first-hand. At the end of the day I was going to find out for myself. Overall I was pleased that I had looked as at least it gave me an idea of what to expect and even where there are not great road conditions it is still somehow more comforting going into the known rather than the unknown.
Let’s face it.. when someone says Kenya you think lion, or at least I do.
curl up in a ball and cry for your mummy.
My train of thought went something like this..
lion … cyclist;
speed and agility … fully laden and slow;
natural habitat … lost and confused;
hungry … dinner.
My main questions on this subject were
- Are the national parks completely fenced off?
- Am I going to come across a lion while filling up my water bottle or meet an elephant while withdrawing cash from an ATM?
- And, as already mentioned, can I wild camp with my hammock and not be bitten, sat on or swallowed whole?
Again, information was difficult to find and is geared around more typical style of travel. You will find plenty to read about the sorts of animals you will find in the country as a whole, national parks and the many safari’s that can be taken, even by bicycle. Finding out things like where park boundaries start and end or even what these boundaries look like can be much more difficult.
It was brought to my attention that all of the animals could in theory be found anywhere although it is rare outside of the national parks. When I was trying to find reassuring words, my new friend to be, Akinyi, who is a friend of Hannah’s, told me “About the lions, they can find you right here at my flat. So not to worry” which had the opposite effect. In the end the most comforting thing I found was to try find news stories of real incidents of animal attacks involving human injuries or fatalities, and, while they exist, the numbers are extremely slim. The way I saw it is was, it would be the same as being constantly terrified about motorway driving in the UK in case you were crushed by a lorry. Yes, while possible, the chances are slim and there are things you can do to mitigate against their likelihood.
Speaking of which I decided to look into “what to do if you come face to face with a lion” (or elephant). These, I had decided, were my biggest worries. The first thing I read was to look big and strong and be
Speaking of which I decided to research “what to do if you come face to face with a lion” (or elephant). These, I had decided, were my biggest worries. The first thing I learnt was to look big and strong and be loud and threatening (yeah right!). I have a basic enough understanding of animal behavior for this not to be a surprise. So.. that’s lots of shouting and standing with arms raised high and wide wearing my brown pants. There was more information I found useful and maybe not as obvious, which is always good learn about in advance even if on the day you just curl up in a ball and cry for your mummy. These include,
- don’t get between a hippo and water,
- don’t get between any animal and it’s young,
- and don’t turn your back to a cat. Try to walk away sort of sideways while maintaining eye contact.
Now to the scariest part.
Many animals will often execute a “mock charge.” This is a charge towards you to test your fear and to see if you are, or at least think you are, stronger, and it is very important at this juncture to stand your ground, if not also shouting and standing tall in return. While I’m sure this is great advice, I am hesitant to believe I would be able to do this, but hey, it’s still better to know I guess. There was some additional information about an elephant and their ear position indicating if it is a mock charge or a genuine charge which I had forgotten days later, let alone by the time I arrived in Kenya. Good job, as the only elephant I came across was very happy eating his tree at the side of the road.
The reason I’ve left this section towards the end is because it reflects how I totally forgot about it until the very last minute.
I thought about vaccinations only 11 days before flying out, and the reason that number is important is that I read I would need a yellow fever vaccination with certificate of proof to even enter the country which isn’t valid for 10 days because that’s how long the vaccination takes to take affect. In a late night panic and a Google search I found a private clinic that does next day travel consultation appointments and can provide, for a cost, on-the-day vaccinations.
I left the appointment with a scary list of fevers and diseases
While in the car park for my appointment the following morning I discovered that there have been no recorded incidents yellow fever being contracted actually in Kenya since 1995 and in 2016 when there were two incidents, while these were both local Kenyans, they had both contracted the virus in West Africa and brought it home with them. While Kenya is still classified as high risk for yellow fever it seems the actual risk is only historical. In fact, the Kenyan government have been working with the World Health Organization to reduce the risk rating. For this reason, it turns out you only need a vaccination if you are travelling to Kenya from another high risk location and due to the fact yellow fever literally can’t survive in Europe’s cold weather, I was in the clear.
Or at least I thought so.
I had decided then not to take the vaccination since the risk of contraction appeared to be extremely low while the likelihood it would make me ill and actually cause a fever that could slow down or even prevent my cycling was relatively high. The private clinician disagreed strongly with this but since I was already ill with the common cold, also known as acute man flu, there was no way they would inject me with a live-vaccine anyway, which is what yellow fever is. I left the appointment with a much longer and scary list of other fevers and diseases and invisible nasties to worry me. With all my attention on yellow fever I hadn’t thought about any of the others.
This lead to an interesting run around, circumnavigating the NHS GP service to try to establish what vaccinations and boosters I had had (spoiler alert: the answer is none). Regardless, it transpired that when changing GPs over 6 months earlier my records had been forwarded on from one surgery and not received by the other. My medical records now appeared to be lost in the ether. All the while, my current surgery were trying to contact me, all the while my mobile provider had disconnected me incorrectly.
I had a nightmare run-around the week before my trip and with all these complications I slowly run out of time for different vaccinations including the full course of three injections required for complete rabies protection. I did manage to get a double whammy (left-arm jab and right-arm jab) to cover me for 5 of the basics which were; polio, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria and hepatitis-A… on the day before my flight!! While they might have taken up to 48 hours to take affect, much of that would be spent on a plane and, despite being quite blasé earlier in the week, getting these injections was actually a massive relief for me. The way I saw it, I could avoid rabies by not making friends with strange animals, now I was protected against illnesses that come from things which are much harder to avoid such as unhygienic conditions, water and food preparation.
If you want to be more organized than I was please contact your GP as soon as possible before your trip, or even if you don’t have a trip planned, as you can get lifetime protection or 10/20 year protection in some case. Also visit websites such as fitfortravel for further advice.
Getting a visa for entry was another thing I had forgotten about and while I was assured I could apply on the spot at the airport, I didn’t like the idea of not being prepared (although you wouldn’t believe that reading this all of this). Also, you need to pay in dollars (USD) or maybe pounds (GBP) and was advised to take both. Now, I hate the whole dealing with currency conversion thing in any trip, needing another two on day one, I really didn’t like the idea of. So I applied online and it took 20 minutes to complete the form, I was required to have all my passport and flight details. It took two days for the email confirmation to come through. Then all you need to do is print this off and voila! You have your visa ready to go. But whatever you do, don’t leave the printed copy of your visa on the plane when you land (I couldn’t possibly comment). For information, they will happily accept a pdf copy displayed on a smartphone.
The only remaining essential was planning my route back internally from Lamu Island to Nairobi to make my flight home. I could feasibly cycle if I turned straight around when I got there, but of course the point of the trip was to visit Hannah, meaning this was out of the question. Overland public transport could take 18 hours by coach, or rather coaches, or potentially take two days by train. This didn’t seem at all appealing. I spoke with Hannah and she said that the trains were some of the most unreliable forms of transport and could often experience up to 48 hour delays, which isn’t great when you have a flight to catch. Hannah booked me on an internal flight back the day before my international flight home from Nairobi.
I would be leaving my bike box with Akini in Nairobi which meant I still needed to pack my bike up somehow for the internal flight. I considered my two options to be;
- Acquire multiple scraps of cardboard, plastic wrap and gaffa tape in Lamu and wrap my bike in a make shift giant cardboard taco. This was actually the approach that got my last bike all the way to Guatemala on a three-leg journey! Or
- Purchase a foldable, soft-case, bicycle carrier. Which seemed like the best idea.
I ordered two different bike bags to compare with only one day left to pack I decided on the heavier of the two. It was twice the weight and looked like it would be twice as strong for it. I am hoping that this bag will be with me for a while being exactly what I need on bikepacking trips with open-jaw flights (flying back from a different destination that I fly out to). There are a few pitfalls with the bag but it’s not a hard case and is portable on the back of a bike. I will write a full review on it when I get the chance.
Ready, Steady, Go!
This about concludes my preparation for Kenya. Other than trying to avoid my typical “pre-trip panic spending spree” (which I actually managed quite well) and a few painfully ignorant WhatsApp messages to my cousin…
“Does everyone speak English?” “What will I be eating?” “Can I drink the tap water?” and “Do they have UK plugs, or even plug sockets, or even electricity?”
…I was ready to go!
Saddle Life x