One thing we have in SA is the choice, barring on Christmas day, to do a mountain bike event or stage race. It makes it difficult to choose one. So having won an entry to the Laikipia XC, in Kenya, Mark Botes invited his very patient friend Kean Broom along and set off for an African adventure.
Having never done more than a four day stage race before, let alone a total of 500km in six consecutive days, I knew it was going to be a challenge. Before we left, many people asked if we were losing our marbles because of Al-Shabaab and all the violence in Kenya! This we found out was more isolated to the coastal regions and not inland where we were going to be. My comment was look around our own front door step and point out that this might just be a breath of fresh air. Well fresh air is what we got. It was good to escape the winter blues of Gauteng and experience a bit of a different culture, and some heat.
We were welcomed at the Tribe Hotel in Nairobi by the organisers of the race and then it was off on a 180km bus trip, north to the NaroMoru River Lodge for the start the next day. Kenyans are very friendly and any attempt to communicate in Swahili is greeted with a broad smile of brilliant ivories. Everyone was so welcoming, or “karibu” (meaning you are welcome) and eager to please. After dinner it was race briefing by our host Helen Kinuthia and her team.
The next day we would be off from NaroMoru River Lodge across the Equator to the air strip close to Mt Kenya Safari Club, for day one, on a 51km route which featured 950 meters of climbing. The route took us up the foothills of Mt Kenya before dropping down some spectacular downhills and through beautiful forests, with the ever present danger of elephants nearby.
Day two was a 76km ride to a small town called Timau, taking in more lush Mt Kenya forest and climbing 1 260 meters. The forest was so lush that after 25kms we got lost with the front runners. We all decided to stick together to get back onto the route. Some very funny and serious words were exchanged in the confusion of trying to find our way. It’s amazing how even the pro riders understand when you are lost you are lost!
Back on course we entered the spectacular conservancy of Loildaiga Hills. The amazing thing here was that we were ‘escorted’ by the rangers through the reserve. Zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, duiker, elephant and impala were plentiful. Some very tricky rocky descents and rolling hills allowed for some amazing scenery. In the last 10 kilometres we dropped into the Laikipia Plateau.
Overnight rain brought relief to some dusty roads for day three’s 101km trek. We were very grateful for this. We rolled along seeing Masai herdsmen watching over their cattle, sheep and goats.
Moving north towards Ol Malo the dryness and hot conditions were playing a serious factor in the competition. The landscape had changed to open savannah, dry grasslands and dry river beds which even the most skilful rider could not ride through. I noticed the efforts of some European states in funding infrastructure development in this region, schools are being built and roads are well maintained. By the end of the stage I felt one with my saddle (not in a positive way) and was fanaticising about a shower and a soft mattress.
The camp was set up every night and this was a big affair. Mess tent, dining tent, massage tent, toilet tents, shower tents, race office/logistics tent and of course the tents for each rider. Yes one, two-man canvas tent for each rider, luxury I tell you. Hot water was provided by using a 210 litre drum with a fire lit under it.
Day four was a 51km trek with 1 409 meters of climbing. It doesn’t sound like far but we were warned to take enough water and provisions to be out there for at least five hours. We rode through the forest and onward north east to the escarpment and after 5km started to descend one of the most challenging downhills I have ever been blessed to ride. After 11km of descending I crashed on the very last corner of the descent! While brushing myself off I realised I was the first to reach the bottom. It was amazing to stand there and watch the other riders snaking their way down.
The flats of the Tsala conservancy are spectacular. River beds and soft sand make for slow riding though. It soon became hot, reaching 36 degrees. 20 kilometres of climbing followed; it was very often unrideable for Kean and I. I have never pushed my bicycle so far, ever. That’s why we needed extra liquids. The route looped back to the previous day’s camp site and Justin, our hero, came back after finishing bringing additional water and bananas to the other riders. Respect, Justin! The late afternoon brought cooling rain, much to our relief. That night we were treated to some TV, no not bush TV but real TV, DSTV to be precise, and we watched some World Cup football and Tour De France. What a treat. After crashing early I was woken up in the early hours by the cries of a nearby hyena. This is Africa!
On day five we headed back to the mountain, over 71km with a significant 1 735 meter of climbing. The day’s start was at 1 700m above sea level and the stage finished at 2600m above sea level. We rode through the Borano Conservancy, with open roads taking us past two lakes. In SA we speak of dongas, in Kenya they speak of luggas, and we rode in the luggas for kilos on end. They’re almost like a half pipe and makes for great go-pro moments.
The staples for the water points were bananas, oranges, water, USN Carbs and three biscuits wrapped together. You know the question in Africa from children “sweeeetts”? Well I just didn’t hear that. Later we found out the biscuits were the “swweeetts” for the children. They would say: “You give me biscuit”, an instruction our fellow rider, American Chris didn’t take very well.
Muddy conditions and a ridiculous river portage took us back into the forest foothills of Mt Kenya. A slight lapse in concentration saw me crash and I hit my head when I came down. I had to follow Farmer Glen’s old advice of “when the going gets tough, sit up and look at the scenery”! I had to do just that for a few moments. Some sweet relief greeted me that night when Helen’s Dad handed me a Coke. I had been dreaming about Coke during the ride that day. It’s the small things that make me appreciate these adventures.
Mt Kenya showed us her beauty at sunset. This is a region filled with adventure and while the Bush TV is lit, the night was heralded in magic with a full moon. Helen’s Mom fed us well again. Chomma (Braai in Swahili) was on the menu. Steak and wors, what a treat!
Day six was a short, final 25km blast around a circular route. I managed to have my only mechanical of the race, a broken chain, and then we got lost for good measure too. It was not all bad because we came close to two huge bull elephants. A fitting way to end the six days in Kenya!
We got back on track and finished at the Mt Kenya Safari Club helipad. Kean and I rode for a total of 27 hours, 33 minutes and 54 seconds and finished second behind the pros. We finished the adventure with a cold Tusker on the freshly mown lawns of the Safari Club.
Sus the Laikipia XC Round-up:
Go to mid-ego.blogspot.com to see more amazing photos of the race and the area.
An event like this is special, because it takes you away. Traveling through Africa has a way of bringing you back to the simple things in life. The event participants were interesting. A special mention goes to the tandem team. A 22 year old pilot with a broken collar bone and a blind guy peddling at the back. Absolute respect, guys!
This race deserves to grow. And you really should do it next year! Helen is passionate about travel and mountain biking. To her and her crew, who set out the route, ‘asante sana’. To Alex the masseuse, not only a rider par excellence but a guy that will make you cry on that massage table. To Vincent, what a bike mechanic, you will get a job any day here in SA.
Find out more about the Laikipia XC and to book your spot in the 2015 race go to www.laikipiaxc.com.
Mark Botes was the lucky guy who won a pair of entries to the inaugural Laikipia XC in the May issue of Full Sus. He is a director of Point 3, a financial solutions firm, and the host of a financial talk show on Impact Radio 103FM.