The Journey from Nairobi to Lilongwe

Riding into Nairobi was one of the craziest and probably most dangerous things I ever experienced. At first the roads were narrow with one lane each direction and deep drops on the side where the water had washed away the shoulder (assumable there was one). Vehicles would pass the car ahead totally ignoring the fact that we would ride on the side of the road. Once we hit the highway into Nairobi my adrenaline levels rose to new heights. We now road on 2 to 3 lane roads, both directions, with on and off ramps every few kilometres. It’s a miracle that we all arrived in one piece in the city centre of Nairobi, where we worked our way centimetre by centimetre through the traffic jam to the Wildebeest campsite just outside of Nairobi.  

 Pierre was welcoming me already on the road 1km before the camp. I was so ecstatic seeing him after over two months apart, and once again was reminded how fortunate I am to call this amazing man my husband. Thanks to Mike Hobin, who was embarking on a short trip to Kenya for a charity event, Pierre was able to borrow his bike and ride two stages from Nairobi to Arusha. 

Once we had arrived in the camp I found my next surprise. A brand new bicycle! I had ridden my Specialized Epic through the Egyptian and Sudanese desert, conquered the Ethiopian highlands, and was really pleased with the reliability of my companion but it was hard work riding a dual sus on tar roads. Many of the routes we’ve taken were off-road still a few years ago but each month new roads are built to improve the infrastructure and trade routes in Africa, leaving little playground for a mountainbike. The fabulous guys from Revolution Cycles in Cape Town sorted me out with the perfect bike, tough enough to take the beating on African soil, yet speedy on tar. Specialized Diverge Elite DSW was selected as the preferred gravel grinder for the task. I had my first practice round after our rest day in Nairobi. The 148 km route had a 5 km stretch of corrugation, a maze of potholes, mud, sand and hard, compact rocky ground. Perfect to put the ability of the Diverge to test. The lack of suspension made it certainly a rough ride but I felt super confident and was really impressed with the great handling. Attributes I would come to appreciate much more during the off-road section in Tanzania a few days later. 

 Our stay in Nairobi was short and I didn’t leave the campsite except for a quick stock-up visit to the nearby shopping centre. The Wildebeest resort offered a wonderful oasis to rejuvenate and indulge in the resort’s food. On the last night in Nairobi, we had the previlege to listen to the Kenyan Boys choir. Don’t miss these gents when they in your hood! You will regret it.
We crossed the border to Tanzania two days after we left Nairobi and finished the stage in Arusha, the base for Kilimanjaro and Serengeti expeditions. Pierre did well on both days between Nairobi and Arusha, but noticed that riding over 100 km each day is not for the faint hearted. Throwing in the constant change in climate, food, spices, bacteria and organism our body is not used to makes for an interesting ride. And I am stronger than him now, hehe. Sharing the experience of our day to day tour rituals with Pierre was very special. Washing dishes in a 1-2-3 step system, cleaning hands about every five minutes, learning about ‘open kitchen’ and developing an appetite for anything sweet are just a few of the typical habits forming part of the TDA life. 

  
  
 In Arusha we had three days off and most of the team used the time to visit the famous Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater. I have never been on a safari trip before and wasn’t too interested in going. Eventually I decided to go because of Pierre. So glad I did! What we experienced during these few days surpassed my greatest expectations and I would have seriously missed out. We saw it all, from grassing giraffes, to herds of elephants, dining lions, in tree sleeping leopards, thousands of wildebeests and zebra, to mention only a few. The plains of the Serengeti are magical, especially before dawn and so was the Ngorongroro crater.  

  
  

Refreshed and ready to jump on the bike we had ahead of us a 7 day back-to-back ride. With a distance of 929 km and over 8000 m elevation gain on mostly dirt roads an Epic week was waiting. The first two days were still on road. Emma, the female rider I am spending most time with on the road, had numerous punctures on day two. The worn tyre had little wires inside the walls which started to come loose and kept puncturing the tube. The backup truck supplied us with a new tyres at the 90km mark and allowed us to finish the ride. We arrived in camp after over 7 hours making it the longest day on the bike for us so far. The next day we were scheduled to hit gravel and had to change our slicks to something more suitable. I changed my 28’s to 38’s for more tractions and to allow for lower air pressure when necessary. For dinner we had torrential rain with thunderstorm as desert. We were soaked in seconds, the food turned into a soup and the soil we walked on turned into a slippery mud bath. My bike was still parked upside down to complete the daily drivetrain cleaning. When I returned the handle bars of my bike was covered in mud. I cleaned it and wasn’t paying attention further until the next morning. The moment I jumped on my bike I realised that my rear shifter wasn’t responding. Fortunately, the tour mechanic was still in camp and did his magic to make it work, good enough for me to ride the stage. To my surprise the shifter worked perfectly fine again after a couple kilometres and confirmed that the mud had clogged up the gear lever. After this little excitement it was smooth sailing until the 90km mark where we turned on to gravel. I must admit that I was a little worried about how my new bike would perform on the gravel as I never really ridden a cyclocross on gravel for more than 3km. If there was worry, it was forgotten the moment my wheels touched the off-road. It was fast, very fast, it was comfortable, and I felt totally in control at all times. It was super fun engaging my mind again choosing quickly the best lines, jumping over dips and avoiding collisions with cows, donkeys, dogs and passing pedestrians. Road riding can be fun but riding on dirt is just so much cooler. I can’t believe that I haven’t tried a cyclocross bike earlier. It’s the ultimate bike for touring and explorations rides off the beaten track for those that like a little faster ride. The day ended with a proud 133km and another stage win in the pocket. A game post was the camping ground for the night. From there we disappeared of the grid for 4 days in to the Tanzanian jungle. We immersed into nature; off roads enclosed by thick forests only making space for the villages and grass fields scattered along the route. Locals were incredibly friendly, always throwing at least a smile mostly coupled with a hand wave and a greeting. Some even clapped with their hands and sent encouraging words our way. People seem very content in this part of the world. Very gentle natured, kind and ready to lend a helping hand. Tanzania is so beautiful, like a big garden filled with millions of sunflowers, and other botanical wonders thanks to the tropical climate. We had no running water for 7 days and used water bottles to rinse off the dirt. Interestingly the water would not evaporate off the skin unless dried off properly. I took a 1 hour shower the day we arrived in Mbeya and have developed a real appreciation for water. Cycling seems a typical means of transport in the more rural areas. There was plenty of bicycle traffic passing us, impressively manoeuvring their way very gracefully with their 1-speed bike through the mud.
My new bike is amazing and makes my ride a very fast one. The first two days were less challenging, terrain wise, with mostly hard compact gravel roads or dry soil ground. The terrain however changed to a lot sandier and muddy ground as we rode further south. Parts of the route was washed away by recent rainfalls and made it impossible for cars to pass without getting stuck. But what to do if there is no alternative route? It took some serious effort from the whole TDA team and many of the riders to free the vehicles.    

Not to forget that we rode each day over 110km without around 1000m elevation gain. Throwing in some surprises makes a day very long with little time for recovery. But no one minds so much as long as there is food and a pillow to rest the head on in the evening. After all, it’s a real adventure with lots of unforeseen happenings. For most parts, I rode on my own through the off road section the last few days, starting my ride with the sun rise and was for most time ahead off the other riders and TDA vehicles. With the music in my ear starting each morning the ride into the forest was simply perfect. It felt like being one with nature as I cruised through the jungle.                 

After this 7-day Odyssey through Tanzania we arrived in Mbeya and had one rest day at the Mbeya Hotel. The hotel was built around the 1950’s and had kept its old charm. Very beautiful and tranquil oasis in between the huzz and buzz of Mbeya.
We left Mbeya in heavy rainfall and were soaked after only a few meters of riding. We had to climb out of the valley around 1000m towards the Malawian border. Banana trees, papaya trees, tea plantations and the most stunning vistas were greeting us further south once we had conquered the pass. At the border everything went smooth, changed some dollar to Kwatcha, had some coke and off we went to Karonga, our campsite for the night. We turned our time one hour back giving us one hour more sleep the next morning. What a treat! The humidity in meantime had increased to a felt 100% and made us swim in bed and loose so much liquid during the ride that someone could probably trace our route from start to finish. We headed to Chitimba beach and were riding 90km in just over three hours impatient to reach the water.


  

 Chitimba is a popular rest stop for overland tours. The moment we arrived at their doorstep I understood why. A beach bar filled with delicate spirits and beers, ‘cold’ drinks, affordable wooden huts located on Lake Malawi overseeing the nearby located mountain ranges is certainly a great recipe for a holiday destination. The Easter weekend in Chitimba was filled with many hours of sleep, drinks and food. Most of us were drifting between the dreamworld and realworld especially on day two. Our body just takes what it needs and it’s usually only on day 2 that it realises it’s time to relax. The 20km time trial out of Chitimba on day 3, including an elevation gain of 600m, was certainly a shock to the system to say the least. But with all the great food and drinks consumed over Easter there was enough fuel in the tank to move forward and upward. The time trial was rounded of with a 100km cool-down to Mzuzu. I pitched my tent that afternoon and had the most amazing snooze for an hour. Knocked out. The next day, stage 55, was scheduled as a Mando day, 1900m up over a 124km distance. It was a hard effort. Flipp. I am not sure where my body takes the strength and energy from but I felt great and finished in exactly 5 hours, 33min ahead of the next lady. For the first time since Cairo, I took the lead in the lady’s cat overall standing! I hope to keep it until Cape Town. But it’s still a couple kilometers (34 stages) to go until home and my contender Emma is super strong. So, should be exciting racing. The following two days took us along endless corn, tobacco and sunflowers fields, the countries main income source. After endless rolling hills and seemingly never ending miles we arrived in Lilongwe, the largest city and capital of Malawi.


  
  
  
  
  
We are currently enjoying one rest day in the Mabeya Camp, near a Shoprite and Pizza Inn, more correctly labeled as Food Heaven. You should have seen the amount of sweets I bought and even more shocking, how quickly I consumed it together with half a chicken and pizza. Three months of cycling and around 7000km in the legs, my appetite demands endless amounts of food. The other day I caught myself ordering two breakfasts of the menu. Not normal! But that’s TDA, haha. 

As always a reminder to please please donate some funds towards the puchase of our Buffalo Bicycles and help children in South Africa complete their education no matter how deserted they may live. Read further: https://katjasteenkamp.com/qhubeka-world-bicycle-relief

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