Northern Kenya

Early in the morning I left Moyale, cycling away from the Ethiopian border, down into the the arid lowlands of Northern Kenya.

At turns and settlements, there were speed bumps. The speed bumps themselves were not much of an issue on a bike, but each had several sections of rumble strip preceding them. In a car these would be barely noticable but on a bike they’re quite annoying, causing the whole bike (and rider!) to rattle.

Thankfully there weren’t many settlements and so not too many of these. The land here was mostly scrubland, with occasional herders moving flocks of goats and camels.

There were a few police checkpoints along the way, but I was never stopped. This road was once infested with bandits but that problem has apparently been resolved in recent years. I guess I don’t look like a bandit, nor an Ethiopian refugee!

After about 45km I got a puncture and moved off the road. I swapped the tube and started pumping it up… Until my pump broke. I spent a while trying to fix it but wasn’t having any luck.

A passing landcruiser stopped and the driver asked if I was okay. He was going to Moyale and very kindly agreed to give me a lift back there, where I could hopefully find a new pump. It wasn’t until I was putting the bike in the back that I realised this was a police vehicle. The driver, Stephen, was an off duty police sergeant.

He dropped me off back in Moyale, and I set about finding a pump. After being directed to various shops I eventually managed to buy one. I then went hunting for inner tubes. I found my way to a collection of motorbike/bike shops, but the bike shops there were closed. One of the people working at a motorbike hoped on his bike and led me through a market to an unmarked shop that sold, amongst other things, inner tubes. They had a valve type I’ve not seen before, but it was compatible with my new pump so I bought two. Judging by the relative frequency of shouts of Ferengi/Mzungu(Amharic/Swahili for white man), there seem to be lots of Ethiopians even on the Kenyan side of the border town.

Half the day was now gone and I decided to check into a hotel. I hadn’t been able to buy a sim card in Moyale so I made sure to get a hotel close enough to the border that I could still use my Ethiopian sim card. Later on I went to a chip shop – Kenya was a British colony, and it shows: they also drive on the left, speak good English and even use British plugs!

I left again the next morning. The first 45 kilometres passed much as they had the morning before, though they were not appended by a puncture this time. As I had the day before, I saw lots of people out running as I left Moyale. I haven’t seen people exercising for leisure in quite a while.

I continued riding through scrubland, until I reached the village of Turbi.

From Turbi the landscape changed to desert – pretty much just sand and rocks. I saw a few gazelle running around but didn’t manage to get a good picture.

After 80 or so kilometres of desert I reached Bubusi, another village. The people in these villages are clearly used to cyclists coming through. Normally, when people ask where I’m riding to/from, I say the name of a large city relatively nearby. Here, they follow up with “and after that, are you riding to Cape Town?” or “And did you start cycling in Cairo?”

I cycled on for another half hour or so past Bubusi, then moved away from the road and set up camp.

I was woken at about 4 AM when the wind really picked up. There’d been a bit of headwind yesterday but this was something else. I couldn’t get any more sleep with the wind buffeting the tent so I packed up and started cycling at first light.

This very strong headwind coincided with an 800m climb up to the town of Marsabit, atop a dormant volcano of the same name. The gradient was about 1-2%, enough to be felt but not enough to seem like much visibly, so it felt as though the headwind was slowing me down even more than it was.

After a couple of hours my front tyre went flat. As had been the case a couple days before, the cause was a hole on the inner side of the tube. I think my inner tubes have been weakened by the time I spent riding with a compromised rim tape on my rear wheel. I swapped the tube out and continued on.

A crater near the top of the climb

After four slow hours I reached the town of Marsabit. I tried again to get a simcard, but they only had the facilities to register them for people with Kenyan ID cards. I stopped at a supermarket and rode out of town, descending back down to the lowlands. The downhill ended at the village of Log-Logo, and the desert began again. A while later there came a long hiss as my front wheel went flat again, for the same reason.

The valves on the new tubes I’d bought are a bit wider than the Presta valves on my tubes, and won’t fit in my front wheel. I decided to swap the tube from my read wheel to the front, and put a new tube in the rear.

With this delay it was getting dark as I reached Laisamis, which had been my goal for the day. Some curious kids ran along beside me as I rode up the hill into the town. A motorcyclist also joined me. I spoke to him for a bit – he is a pharmacist in Laisamis. He warned me against riding at night, saying the people here are “not civilised.” I assured him I was about to stop for the night, and did so, at the Oasis hotel. It was 500 shillings (about £3.30) but, surprisingly, had pretty good wifi.

As usual, an early start saw me riding out of Laisamis at dawn. There were some villages early on, until I reached Sereolipi, which was the beginning of another fairly long empty section.

Just past the village, I had several unpleasant encounters with children. Out in the bush, herds of goats or camels are often watched over by young boys. They frequently demand money or water. The first I came across, hefted a fist sized rock and was about to throw it, until I pointed at him, stared him down and firmly told him no. The next chased me with a stick. The next were a pair, one wielding a couple of spears and the other a stick. They both tried to force me to stop but I kept riding, and the one with the stick threw it at me (and missed). At least they didn’t throw the spear, as they did at a pair of cyclists that came through a week after!

Obviously it doesn’t excuse their behaviour but one does wonder what their lives are like out here. Although those in the villages go to school, the herders in the countryside seem not to go. It is an extremely difficult environment to survive in, and there are probably no opportunities for them to leave.

Once past these children and out into the desert, I only saw wildlife – a couple of ostriches and lots of dikdiks.

Archer’s Post was the end of the dry stretch, and the beginning of the end of the desert. The road climbed gently up toward the town of Isiolu, with the landscape becoming greener as I climbed. I saw a baboon, and it began to rain a little.

My legs were feeling unusually tired. I’d just done 3 days with an average riding time of over 9 hours, and I’ve had a lot of time off recently so my legs may not be used to it. I’ve also generally been riding into a headwind so I was spending a lot more time in an aggressive riding position.

Due to my tired legs I thought I might want to take a rest day in Isiolu so I searched for a hotel with WiFi. I checked into the Moti Pearl Hotel which, at 2000 KSH (£13) is more than I would usually pay but my legs were hurting, I wanted Wifi, and I had a group of annoying kids following me around demanding money.

The hotel wasn’t that great – the wifi was intermittent and, at an elevation of about 1000m, Isiolu is still a bit warmer than I’d prefer. My legs felt somewhat better in the morning so I decided to stick to my original plan of riding on to Nanyuki, where I’d be able to get a sim card (and thus internet). It’s also at a higher elevation so it would be pleasantly cooler.

Getting to a higher elevation does of course involve climbing and so, when I finally set off at 8 AM (late by my standards), it was to begin a 1500 metre climb.

Near the top of the climb there was a restaurant where I stopped for chips. I parked my bike next to the restaurant but they asked me to move it further away – then, when I was done, the proprietor asked me to bring it back to take a photo.

Looking back down at the desert

From there the road dropped down to an elevation of a little under 2000m as I made my way to Nanyuki. I went to a Safaricom shop and was finally able to get a simcard, then checked into a cheap hotel. I decided to take a couple rest days here.

Heading downhill

The hotel was right next to a mall with a good supermarket. Unfortunately that also made it a target for local beggars; one followed me back to the hotel and kept knocking on my door, while demanding money. Eventually I opened the door, told him he was going to leave, and started walking purposefully towards him. He ran off and didn’t bother me again. Other than that it was a restful couple days!

Nov 6: 45 km

Nov 7: 205 km

Nov 8: 135 km

Nov 9: 162 km

Nov 10: 80 km

4 thoughts on “Northern Kenya

  1. Hi Sam,

    Quite astonishing to realize you’ve already pedaled almost halfway south the African continent, it feels like it was such a short time ago when I was reading your stories in Egypt… time flies! Really keen on following your cycling travels during these times :). I can imagine you’re having a great time on the road, even if the circumstances can be challenging in certain countries like you experienced in Ethiopia. On the other hand, perhaps local people might be more excited to see a cycle traveler after not meeting one during the long period of travel restrictions? 🙂

    I’m actually planning on setting off cycling the Americas after finishing the studies in roughly one year from now. In fact I first intended to take a gap year after 2020 Spring semester but then the virus stepped in and prevented travel to North America, so I decided to postpone it until graduation. I’ve been doing some overnight and multi-day trips mostly in Finland in the past couple of years, riding with the cross bike I’ve had since four years.

    One thing I’ve been pondering w/r to the crossing of the Americas on a bike is tire choice/size. The current bike is now having a winter set up with 35mm gravel tires which have fared well on the smooth gravel roads and double track of Finland, with a similar “soft bag” light touring setup as yours, but I can’t help thinking that I’m getting a bit biased when riding such well-maintained roads. I reckon the off-road conditions south of Canada and the US (and why not in some parts of Canada and the US, too) might include rougher surface and terrain, therefore making them more enjoyable to ride with wider/fatter tires. I’m not talking about fat bike tires as I also want to maintain good speed on paved and more smooth roads, but having some more cushion on the more rugged stuff could also allow riding those parts faster than with skinnier tires. At the moment I only have a vague idea about the route but I would prefer riding smaller roads close to nature whenever possible, the start being in Alaska and crossing Canada and the US along the Rockies (perhaps riding some sections of the Great Divide), and from there on continue to Central America and then again in the Andes in South America all the way to Tierra del Fuego, with a total time of 12 to 18 months which should be more than doable based on my calculations (I know bike touring is not all maths but you get the point 😉 ).

    What I’m looking for is some sort of a compromise between off-road ability and good speed on paved roads. But having no experience about riding in those countries, it would be great to hear your take in it as you’ve ridden all sorts of roads in the Americas. I would estimate that a tire in the 40 to 56mm (2.2″) range (40 to 50mm tires in 28″ or 700c, and any wider than that in 27.5″ or 650b in order to reduce toe overlap on a drop-bar bike) would cater to the requirements quite well. Why I’ve been thinking about this topic is because if I’m planning to use wider tires I would need to switch to a different frame, and with the current super long lead times in the bike industry I’d better start looking for a frame early should I decide to buy a new frame (in case I can’t find anything second-hand). A bike like the Kona Sutra Ltd would be ideal but there are many similar options. I don’t want to get too wide with the tire choice either as it will just slow down depending on how big the proportion of smooth roads is, but I think a wider tire than the current 35mm setup will help riding down rough mountain descents. I have been very impressed by tubeless setup in the last few years and plan on riding tubeless at least the first months of the tour, but possibly change to tubes after the US or when the first set of tubeless tires are finished as I think it can be challenging to find good quality tubeless tires in the Latin America and obviously ordering stuff from some German webstores is out of question in those parts of the world.

    It would also be interesting to hear your insight into different wheel sizes and in particular finding replacement parts. There has long been the mantra that 26″ would be the way to go in the more developing parts of the world but I reckon things have changed quite a bit since the old days and finding 28″ or 27.5″ tubes, rims etc. is more and more common (obviously I would aim to always carry a couple of extra tubes and some spare spokes in correct length). Or am I wrong with my assumption? I will probably build a dynamo front wheel to have the ability to charge electronics on the go, but still haven’t decided the rim size so I would be keen on hearing your thoughts about the preferred wheel size.

    Quite a lengthy comment, hope I’m not bothering you too much with my enquiry :).

    Cheers
    Aleksi

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    1. Hey Aleksi! I was thinking about you the other day, wondering if you were still planning on doing a big tour. Glad to hear you are!

      I reckon in terms of cycling distance I’m probably less than a third of the way to Cape Town – partly because of the flight to Ethiopia and the buses out of it, and partly because I’ll be zigzagging more further south to visit as many countries as possible..

      Tyre width is a very personal decision – different people like to spend more or less time on paved roads, or are more willing to accept being slower on tarmac, or more uncomfortable on dirt. There are options for both, pretty much the whole way south – you don’t have to leave tarmac if you don’t want to … And you almost don’t have to ride on tarmac if you don’t want to!

      I’d recommend starting with fairly wife tyres, and trying to do a lot of off-road stuff in the US and Canada. Then, before crossing into Mexico, you can order new tyres. At that point you’ll have a much better idea of your preferences.

      What’s the widest tyre your bike can take? I’ve done most of my touring with 35mm tyres but that is unusual, most prefer wider. As you say mountain descents are where the width is most helpful – when riding with others in the Pamirs, I was much slower downhill with my narrow tyres.

      I’ve also always ridden 700c. Carry spare tubes, but 26in ones will stretch if needed. You may as well carry spare spokes, but since I started using good wheels I haven’t had a broken spoke in 50,000 km.

      Tyres are the main factor. Latin America is reasonably developed and you’ll rarely be more than a couple hundred km from somewhere you can buy a 700c tyre. Options may be limited – only 25mm racing tyres or 2.5in mountain bike tyres. But that’ll get you to city where you can buy better.

      It can be worth planning ahead – replacing tyres before leaving the US, and then again in Colombia (where cycling is very popular).

      Let me know if you have any other questions!

      Sam

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      1. Sam,

        I didn’t realize you’re even further south than I thought! I had just looked at the map of Africa and Kenya appeared to be somewhere around halfway the continent but now it dawned on me how incredibly far you’ve progressed. I can imagine the southern parts of Africa have a lot of versatility so I can definitely understand the plan to enjoy the most of it before reaching the southern end and afterwards heading for even more experiences on the western side!

        What you advised regarding the tire and route options sounds very sensible. Thanks for those tips! I think I might do it just the way you described and ride Canada and the US mostly on remote non-paved roads on tires with a width around 2″, then I’ll see how I want to proceed from there on to the Latin America (whether I prefer pavement or more off-road). It’s also reassuring to hear that many bike shops in Latin America stock 700c tires instead of the old 26″ diameter (and you made a good point about Colombia having even better selection of tires so I could possibly ride Canada/US on one set of long-lasting tires, replace and ride Central America on another set and get new tires in Colombia for South America, perhaps carry a replacement as well so I could switch it to rear and from rear to front should I need to do it before finishing the tour).

        My current cross bike is from around 2010 and I wouldn’t ride much wider than 35mm on it, as those leave about 7mm of clearance between the frame and the tire which I think is a safe marginal. I could go up to say 38mm but the difference in air volume is quite negligible. The clearance for 650b/27.5 tires would be about 42mm at most (according to my calipers). Building a 650b wheelset for this frame is not worthwhile in my opinion as it might prove difficult to find 650b tires of correct size during the tour (narrow road tires on that diameter are very rare, and MTB tires would be too wide for the frame), and the smaller wheel diameter also lowers the bottom bracket by about 2cm, which would mean more pedal strikes off-road. Therefore I’m considering to try and find a frame with proper clearance for 700c x 55mm tires so I’m not that limited by tire availability in the rare but unfortunate event of having to find a new tire in more remote areas. I have checked some interesting off-road routes in the Andes (some of which are plotted by Taneli Roininen, a Finnish bike tourer/bikepacker; one such route being the Patagonia Beer Trail on the bikepacking.com website), which appear to include some singletrack, too, so a narrow MTB width tire (2.0″ or 2.1″) might prove useful. Taneli himself was running 2.8″ tires but he was riding Patagonia in winter and I think he also didn’t really know what to expect as he had just looked up satellite images of supposed trails/mountain roads, so the semi-fat tires enabled a setup for a wider range of road conditions. But as you said tire choice is very personal and you have successfully done mountain descents in the Pamir mountains on the relatively narrow tires, so there are definitely many ways to cover distance by bike. I have seen some images of road (or should I say trail) conditions of remote parts of Kyrgyzstan when I was following the Silk Road Mountain Race, so it’s admirable to ride those mountain descents with 35mm-ish tires! Although, I’m not sure how representative the route of the Silk Road Mountain Race is compared to “actual” roads (rather than trails) like the Pamir Highway.

        So far on my tours in Finland, I’ve noticed that once I’ve ridden for several hundred km’s on gravel/forest roads and then return to a paved road, it feels nice to be riding on a smooth surface. I have also noticed the opposite: riding long stretches of pavement sometimes starts to feel slightly dull and I am longing for getting off-road. So I think the key for an enjoyable route might just be versatility :). I don’t want to plan too strictly either as sometimes the impromptu deviations or detours take you to amazing places.

        As much as I like to weigh different (tire) options before setting off, I think it might become less important once you’re some weeks/months into the tour and have gotten into the rhythm of touring. In the end you probably end up riding on whatever tires or other parts you happen to find and shrug your shoulders when it comes to choosing the equipment. Of course you have an idea of which parts you consider to be of good quality and hence they might make touring more enjoyable, but after all, you probably just do well with any gear that keeps your wheels spinning as that’s what’s most important. But I think it can still be worth checking out different options before the tour, so that you wouldn’t swear the poor gear choices on the road because in the worst case that might keep you from going forward if the equipment fails. As you mentioned having done 50000 kms on one set of wheels, that’s a good investment as you have likely avoided many troubles that a cheaper wheelset could’ve caused. For instance, having decent quality hubs with sealed cartridge bearings are less sensitive to irregular service intervals so you can get more life out of them even when they might already be worn, and cartridge bearings are readily available (and small enough that you could even carry a couple of them in the bag, for good measure). But even if you’re well prepared, you can always end up having to do roadside wheel repairs, hence I have learned to build and service my own wheels so I’m not entirely stranded in the event of a broken spoke or a freehub not engaging. As an example of field-serviceability, I like the design of the DT Swiss rear hub in that you can access the freehub and/or a broken drive-side spoke by simply pulling the cassette by hand which allows you to remove the broken spoke or clean the freehub ratchet or pawls. Therefore there’s no need to use many tools like a cassette tool and spanners of different size just to access the hub internals. Yeah, I know this all probably indicates I’m too neurotic/obsessive about being able to do everything myself and getting parts that makes maintenance a much easier task. But that’s just how I like it to be 🙂

        I really enjoy reading your posts about the life on a bike tour. The stories and images you’ve shared here have made me become interested in cycling in Africa, too (a thought which I myself have earlier dismissed, as I have been more lured by the Americas and Asia, probably because they are continents with promiment mountain ranges which I am very much after). One just begins to realize how the world holds so many intriguing places and roads for years or even decades of exploring by bike 🙂

        Wish you safe miles in the saddle and thanks again for sharing your thoughts! And sorry for a rather lengthy response 🙂

        -Aleksi

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      2. Yeah, I think most people would find the tyre clearance of your current bike quite limiting – if you’re able to buy a new frameset that would be ideal.

        I definitely agree with you about liking to alternate between dirt and tarmac, the grass is always greener eh.

        It’s good to spend some time before you leave getting yourself into a good starting position, but in my experience things tend to work out well enough in the end regardless.

        I do miss the snowy peaks of various mountain ranges – the lack of those is a definite drawback to Africa. But it does have it’s advantages, too, and I wouldn’t want to miss out on such a big part of the world.

        Sam

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