Touching down on mainland Africa after four months in Zanzibar, we headed north to Mombasa – before a date with one of the classic African traveller experiences: the overnight train from Mombasa to Nairobi.
Cruising the Coast
North is not the general direction of those heading to South Africa yet the allure of Uganda, Rwanda, Lake Victoria and some interesting prospects helped to recalibrate our compass.
The first day back in the saddle was a butt realigning ride from the Pangani to Tanga. The more rugged the road, the more untouched the environment – a good rule of thumb for African cyclists, who like us wish to avoid the truck-laden highways. The air was fresh, smiles genuine. As the midday heat just began to scorch us the asphalt appeared shortly followed by Tanga and a refreshing stop at the ominously named Roadkill Café. Fresh, ice-cold orange juice never tasted so good!
After reacquainting ourselves with in The Inn by the Sea for a night or two we pedalled north again. Two years earlier this had been a gruelling ride for Ken, Vivi and Eve as they headed the other way – thanks to the Chinese asphalt machine spreading black smoothness throughout East Africa our experience was quite the opposite; pristine tarmac all the way to the border.
We stopped for our second breakfast of the morning in a small roadside hut come café. As our hosts tried to look composed about having two ghosts in their midst we slurped up some beans and dabbled with our Swahili much to their amusement. Several children frolicked about us, taking notes with their eyes and the usual procession of gents appeared pretending to be there for any reason other than to observe the mzungus. The usual enjoyable menu of events for our food stops on the road.
One efficient and uneventful border crossing later we were back in Kenya in the marvellously named Lunga Lunga. The small concrete box of a room we slept in had a clean double bed, mosquito net and a gently streaming shared shower – all a touring cyclist needs. Total cost: 300 Kenyan Shillings or £2.50 – a deal!
Verdant rolling hills and a dreamy sunrise welcomed us in the morning, as we began the 100km cycle towards Mombasa. We joined an unintended race with three other cyclists for the length of their journey, they passing us with grins as we ground our way up the hills before returning the favour as our heavy bikes sped past them on the way down. Not a word shared but eye-ball banter all the way.
Stuck for opportunity
As the sun began to roar more fiercely our roadside refreshment retreats became more frequent. While draining another warm coke we met Peter. He seemed typical of the young African men we meet, dreaming of different places and bigger things, with no idea how to achieve them without money – stuck for a lifetime.
We spoke to Peter for some time, feeling empathetic but without being able to offer him any real consolation. To travel by bike seems so simple, so achievable but family obligations are bind strongly here; the only travel would be to find work. So here Peter – an intelligent, thoughtful and I would have thought quite capable guy - will stay. For most this is what it really means to be in a developing country: lack of opportunity.
We pedalled on ruminating about our encounter. What are the practical ways you can help a fellow like Peter?
The growl of the matatus (local mini-busses) grew louder and more frequent as they rocketed past us. Mombasa was getting close. I don’t like entering cities by bike, especially with only a poorly maintained one lane road to share. Drivers are often seemingly oblivious to our presence on the road. One particularly close encounter sent Manu careering off the road. Not a pleasant experience.
When I was cycling alone I tolerated it. Now with my partner beside me I feel much more inclined to throw the bikes in the back of a pick-up and avoid the obvious dangers.
We rode on more warily. I rode behind occupying more of the road – forcing the matatus to wait for a safe moment to pass us, rather than squeeze us off the road; a risky tactic given the ludicrousness of some people’s driving but our safest bet.
Arriving in Mombasa unscathed was a relief.
We spent a few days in the Castle Royal Hotel, for the start of my photography job. It was slow progress, as I struggled to corral the staff into making the hotel look photo-worthy. The Hotel Manager told me frankly:
“We Africans don’t think anything is wrong unless you are shouting at us. You are being too nice. You might be saying this isn’t right but unless you shout it we will just continue as we were doing”.
I get the impression she’s probably right. Either way it’s not the way I like to get things done. Cultural sensibilities can be such a confusion. Perhaps this is a remnant of colonial times with officers barking orders, or maybe it precedes even that. The folks here don’t seem bothered by it at all – its just the boss being the boss – not a cause for a trip to HR, complaint in hand.
I got my photos – the manager was very happy. I was relieved; first test in my incarnation as a professional photographer passed with flying, slightly saturated and carefully balanced colours.
Returning back to Nairobi would have been a 500km climbing almost 2000m – we took the train!
The Mombasa to Nairobi train used to be one of the quintessential travel experiences as you were able to spot lions, elephant and other ‘big game’ from the comfort of your leather upholstered seat. Those glory days have faded into the past but their ghost remains on this rickety and still charming ride.
Our first class ticket (£25) treated us to a private compartment, dinner and breakfast.
Dinner was served in the restaurant car, still using some of the original engraved silver/pewter tableware, mixed with plastic plates and unmated cutlery. The food and service matched the standard of the plates more than the tableware but it was good fun as we shared a few beers and tales with other travellers.
The views outside offer few glimpses of ‘big game’ but were nonetheless enjoyable – particularly as we awoke to the sun rising through our window and the morning rituals of the small rural villages we passed en route.
The train might be in the shadow of its former glory, dysfunctional and unloved but we were charmed all the same.
We pulled in to Nairobi relaxed and revived – ready to begin our next scheduled volunteer stop at Life Beads Kenya.