Race Report: Kili Challenge Aug / Sept 2019

Words by: Chris Knight | Images by: Mudi Kilwanda

How much can change in one bicycle ride? CHRIS KNIGHT travelled to Tanzania to find out.

On Shira Plateau – everybody made it to the top under their own steam.

Generally, things like the weather, terrain and people remain fairly consistent within a single day of cycling. But the very first day of the GGML Kili Challenge would warp that sense of “common knowledge” for me forever.

The challenge was created by Geita Gold Mining Limited (an Anglo Gold Ashanti mine in northern Tanzania) in order to raise funds to help eradicate HIV/ AIDS in Tanzania. It takes participants on a seven day circumnavigation through the foothills and valleys which surround the highest freestanding mountain on earth, Mount Kilimanjaro.

Day one began in the cold and wet rainforests at the Machame Gate within the Kilimanjaro National Park. After rolling downhill in the rain for a few chilly kilometres we turned off the tar road onto a muddy track; this was the first sign that I was riding somewhere different to my normal – the ground was smooth and as slippery as ice. The slightest change in gradient meant that power could only gently be applied or your wheel would slip. Braking had to be done with a feather-light touch or you’d hit the deck before realizing what had happened. It wasn’t long before we came across our lead vehicle thoroughly stuck in a muddy ditch off to the side of the road. It took three vehicles to get it out! This added to the sense of adventure as a few of us helped push it out with the aid of some locals who had come to see what was happening.

Day one took us through numerous villages, on well word but muddy roads.

As we moved lower down the slopes, the rain stopped and the mist lifted revealing the most incredible beauty all around; lush green forests, gushing rivers and best of all – traction! Moving on after a lunch stop, it felt as if we’d crossed into another country. The ground became dry and rocky and the trees weren’t quite the same shade of luminous green. We were now moving away from the mountain and through farmlands and onto the Masai Plains and with each kilometre, the vegetation became sparser and the ground drier. The square mud huts with corrugated roofs which we had seen earlier in the day had been replaced with round mud huts with grass roofs. I began to notice individual figures with blankets draped around their shoulders standing on small outcrops looking down at us from a distance as we rode past. At this point, we’d been riding for eight hours and were amazed at the dramatic changes we had seen and experienced
so far. We rounded the last corner into the entrance of our camp and were greeted by Masai who were singing and dancing – it was a truly memorable and unexpected experience which we all chatted about while sitting around the campfire that evening. To experience the vast difference between the soaking rains of the rainforest and the dry, arid Savannah terrain with everything in between in one day was truly spectacular and really set the tone for the rest of the trip.

The tour is fully supported and catered which made it an absolute pleasure. With three sumptuous meals a day, many water points along the route and your tent already set up with a mattress and your bag inside when you arrive in camp, there was literally no need to think about anything. Pure bliss!

The next two days were spent in the plains riding game trails, seeing abundant wildlife and flat-topped trees that giraffe had been grazing on. We went through rivers, vast dried up flood plains and through large amounts of fesh-fesh (fine sand almost like talcum powder), but though we were all thoroughly enjoying ourselves, at this point something else began playing on everyone’s minds. Day four. It had been spoken about in hushed whispers and we all knew the raw numbers of the day ahead – 2 000m vertical elevation gain in one unrelenting uphill to an altitude of around 3 800m. But how hard could that really be? Well, as it turns out it can be pretty hard! The biggest issue is oxygen. With each meter you climb you can feel less oxygen entering your lungs – it’s like breathing through a straw. Not ideal as you’re pedalling up a 15% grade. The higher we climbed the smaller the trees around us became until they were just small shrubs. But the view from Shira plateau was definitely worth the effort. Seeing the snow-capped summit of Kilimanjaro up close was a very special moment, and I realized why it’s regarded as one of the world’s great natural wonders.

It wasn’t all mud – there was some more classical African scenery too, here on the border with Kenya.

After getting over the challenge of Shira we were in good spirits and presumed the worst was behind us. That feeling continued over the next two days as we traversed the foothills along the Kenyan border. However, waking up on day seven it was raining. We were in the rainforest again so it seemed reasonable to assume some rain and we were sure it wouldn’tlast long. We could not have been more wrong! The rain got heavier and the temperature plummeted. What would have been tricky riding conditions anyway turned into pretty atrocious conditions. They don’t call this a challenge for nothing! Tricky slopes up were even trickier going down. But the scenery! It was sublime. There were many river-crossings over small rickety
wooden bridges and lots of singletrack through the forest, surrounded by incredible plant life. All of the support vehicles got stuck again which meant our first water point was only after four and a half hours, but those Snickers bars have never tasted so good! The final day finished at Mweka gate after eight and a half hours and only 46km. Altogether, a pretty cold, wet and challenging day.

We celebrated the end of our adventure that evening in the gardens at Weru Weru River Lodge with live music, freestyle dancers, acrobatics and fire dancing – an incredible and memorable end to an unbelievable trip.

Mud, glorious mud. It made for challenging riding, but at least it was cool.

I would, without a doubt, do this trip again in a heartbeat – what a place to ride a bike.

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