Monday, 16 July 2012

Cycling Safari Across the Mara

When I first heard about the Cycling Safari across the Mara, I was excited. The opportunity to explore Africa’s most famous safari destination on two wheels is rare and a welcome change. While a safari such as this one offers a very intimate interaction with nature, it also calls for considerable physical effort. It promises a lot of fun and adventure and is a welcome change from a lot of activities one would otherwise indulge in, in the Capital. 

This particular cycling safari is organised by Chris Angell. Chris’ family has over 100 years of safari experience and it's not the first time that he has organised the safari across the Mara. He first introduced the route to UK Safari Cycle participants in October, 1991. They then rode on the the route for fourteen years, for between three to four times a year, before they got more entrenched at the Kenyan Coast. 

On this trip, I am joined by Teun Engbers , the Food and Beverage Manager at Hilton Nairobi. The friendly Dutchman is not new to cycling. In fact, he is partly the reason I registered for the ride across the Mara. Three months ago, in March, he participated in a charity ride dubbed the Kili 7 to 3 Amboseli Charity Ride. He was the lead fundraiser and was one of the top finishers in the race. He had a great experience at the foot of Kilimanjaro and I regret not having been a part of that particular trip. 

On the trip from Nairobi to Narok, we are to be joined by British cycling enthusiasts Ellie and Hamish. Ellie works for a non- profit organisation in Kilifi while Hamish, her boyfriend, is constructing a tree-house somewhere in a remote part of Mtito Andei. Besides a love for cycling, the couple also shares a love for nature. Our driver for the trip is Lawrence, an amicable gentleman whose knowledge of the Mara will prove invaluable. 

The plan was to leave Nairobi at 5.30 am on the morning of the safari. Elli and Hamish were to travel from the Coast to Nairobi by overnight bus and were expected to arrive early in the morning, at about 5.00 am. We were then scheduled to drive down to the starting point, in Aitong, a little town at the edge of the Mara. However, the bus carrying Ellie and Hamish is running late. By the time the Mash Poa bus arrives in Nairobi, the sun is already peeping through the skyline. 
Rare and unique experience - a group of bikers on a Cycling Safari

Nairobi to Aitong, Narok
It's about 7.30 am when we finally depart from Nairobi. We drive through the beautiful Kikuyu escarpment towards Naivasha. The view of the escarpment is breathtaking as we descend to the Kedong Valley and to Maai Mahiu. We then take a left turn and drive down to the B3 road, towards Narok, a little tourist cushioned at the edge of the world famous reserve, about 270 Kilometres, South West of Nairobi. 

From Narok town, we drive another 30 minutes on the tarmac before we turn into a dirt road just before we reach the junction leading to Bomet. We embark on the dusty stretch. It is a few minutes past 10. 00 am, the scheduled starting time. As we drive along quietly, I am wary of the time. Now drifting out of a light sleep, I stare down at a piece of paper with the print-out of Chris' email. According to the directions given, it will take about an hour and a half on the dirt road before we get to the designated starting point. 

We are running late. Lawrence, our driver, knows this only too well. He nudges the Nissan Xtrail hard, along the dusty, bumpy road. Thankfully, at this time of the year, the roads are in reasonably good condition. During the long rainy season that ends some time in May, the roads are in worse condition. The situation is equally worse during the peak tourist season that begins in July, because of the high traffic of vehicles in the reserve. 

Odd gathering 

We have been driving for just over an hour when we finally get to a clearing in Aitong, where over a dozen cyclists are gathered at the foot of a small hill. As the engine of the car hums to a stop, a beaming Chris emerges from the group. He is wearing a cow-boy hat and is delighted to see us. As he walks towards the now stationary car he shouts: ‘You are right on time. I was just telling the group that you will be here in the next three minutes.' 

After a few pleasantries my focus shifts to what, to the local Maasais, would be an odd gathering. There are three distinct races represented therein and this may well be a local version of the UN meeting. Next to the riders, there are a couple of 4 wheel- drive vehicles. One is towing a carrier of sorts, with a few bicycles straddled at the back. On top of this car is Chris Angell’s young son who is about four or five years old. The little lad seems to be enjoying himself immensely. 

After taking a few pictures, we are finally off! I have not cycled in close to ten years. Neither have I ridden a mountain bike before. Understandably, coming into this, I had reservations about my ability to work the gears on the mountain bike. Thankfully, as I get on the saddle after the long hiatus, I still have my balance. It takes a few more minutes, however, before I’m finally settled and fully comfortable on the bicycle. 

Blistered thumb
There are a lot of loose stones lying all along the road. Because they are considerably fewer at the edge, I chose to cycle there. But it’s not very smooth here either. In order to stay in control, I am forced to hold the bar firmly. I am cycling at a slower pace than I would like to. Teun is right next to me and there are a few riders behind us. We are aware that with increased speed comes the real risk of falling so we make the conscious decision to maintain a reasonable pace. 

We have been cycling for just about ten minutes. The road has more stones as we take a bend and begin a gentle climb. Teun stops to fill his tire. Taking the cue, a few cyclist stop as well. This takes a couple of minutes and then we start moving again. As we move along, the road gets a little smoother. We have now gone around the hill. The pace has increased a little and I am just getting comfortable when I feel a burning sensation on the left thumb. 

I look down and realise that because I have been holding the bar firmly, the friction has peeled off the skin where the thumb meets the rubber on the bar. Instinctively, I look at the left thumb. A small blister is forming. While the pain is not very intense, I know I have to be more careful. For the rest of the ride, I have to keep adjusting my grip and my hold of the bar. 

Beautiful place
The Mara is a beautiful place. One of the key highlights is the excellent weather experienced for most of the year. The reserve experiences a hot and dry climate with regular rainfall season twice a year. At this time of the year (June), the area experiences a transitional phase in the climatic pattern. The long rains that come around March and May have just concluded. However, the dry weather has not yet begun. It begins in July and lasts until October. 

Coming from a rainy season, the vegetation is lush. The open savannah is dotted with stoic acacia trees. The beautiful scenery stretches as far as the eye can see and is only interrupted by rolling hills, far in the distant. Though unseen at this point, the reserve is served by the Mara and Talek rivers, which are an important part of the Mara ecosystem. These two rivers are a key life- line for the reserve.

Unique co-existence

We have been riding for well over an hour. The road is much smoother now and the pace has increased significantly. With the increase in speed, I can feel the wind sweeping across my face and my chest. I take a sip of water from my bottle and the feeling of the cold water going down my throat is refreshing. By now, The riders have split into distinct groups. There are a couple of seasoned riders who are ahead of the pack. Teun and I are cycling somewhere in the middle, at a about 15 KM/h, while there is another group behind us who are cycling at a much leisurely pace. 

On the way, not far off from the track, we see a couple of Manyattas, mud houses. We also meet a group of children who are very happy to see us. Waving and sometimes running along the road, they call out ‘Jambo.’ We respond in kind. On the route, we also meet elderly women herding goats as well as men herding huge heads of cattle. Not far off, we meet some zebras and gazelles. Though surprising, this unique co-existence between the Maasai and wildlife makes it one of the world’s most unique wilderness regions. 

We stop for lunch some twenty one kilometres from the starting point. The out-of-Africa picnic spot is under a lonely acacia tree. By now, the sun is overhead and the almost bare tree does not offer much shade. Nonetheless, as we eat away, we appreciate the warm sunshine sweeping across the wild African plain and the beautiful scenery, littered by wildlife. It is simply amazing. 

Breathtaking array
Masai Mara is home to a breathtaking array of animals. As we cycle across the plains, we see herds of zebras, gazelles and antelopes. The reserve also boasts other animals such as topis, giraffes, gazelles and bigger game that includes rhinos, buffaloes, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas. The rivers that cut across the plains are are home to hippos and crocodiles. 

Because the reserve does not have a fence, there is always the real chance of running into dangerous game. The organisers have therefore deployed Maasai scouts in front of the riders to stop the cyclists in case any danger is foreseen. Remarkably, only once in more than thirty international rides did riders meet lions on the route from Aitong to Talek. Referring to that incident, Chris muses: "I think they (the lions) got more of a surprise (seeing us) than we did, (seeing them).’ 

After lunch, the second phase of the ride is less gruelling. After a short flat stretch, the road begins to dip at a shallow gradient. Less effort is required to cycle downhill and we are therefore able to better appreciate the world renowned safari destination. We stop to take pictures and scores of herbivores, grazing peacefully, form a beautiful and enchanting backdrop. Maasai Mara is the the location for numerous films, including the famous BBC television show titled ‘Big Cat Diary.’

It is just after 4.00 pm when we finally make our way to Fig Tree Camp, the final destination where we will spend the rest of the evening. The 70 roomed camp is beautiful. It is nested on a ridge, at the bank of River Talek and has a magnificent ‘look-out tower’ built around a large fig-tree. The camp is beautiful and the rates at this time of the year are competitive. For Kshs. 13,000/-, all inclusive, we get a nice en-suite tent with two beds; a single bed and a queen bed.
Teun poses for a photo. At the background are grazing zebras

After the great ride on two-wheels across the Mara, a dip in the pool is the icing on the cake- a perfect ending to an otherwise beautiful day. Half- way submerged in the swimming pool and having accomplished a potentially gruelling but exciting feat across the African wilderness, I feel I have earned the right to indulge a little. I order a Tusker which is served just the way I like it, baridi. As we toast, Teun mutters, more to himself than to anyone in particular, ‘This is the good life.'

The evening draws along lazily. Buffet dinner is served at an open air dining area. We enjoy a sumptuous meal under the sky and have an opportunity to engage in conversation with the other cyclists. As the evening draws to an end, and as most of the guests retire to their tents, we relocate to the bar where we have a few drinks before we finally retire to our tent.       

Fig Tree Camp - A view of the tents along River Talek
Morning in paradise
It is early on Sunday when I am woken up by my alarm-clock. As I struggle out of a good night's sleep, I hear the intermittent guttural sound of hippos emerging from River Talek which runs a few meters from our tent. As the noise of the hippos dies down, one can make out the distinctive chorus of bird-call that greets you at the start of the day. It is a perfect morning in paradise. 

After breakfast, we check out of the hotel. We have scheduled an early morning game drive. We have been driving for just about half an hour when we spot another vehicle in the distance. The occupants, beckon to us. Looking out, from the roof-top of their Land Cruiser, they seem to be staring at something on the ground. When we get closer, we find the focus point of all the attention. A few meters from their car, is an adult cheetah, lying on the long lush grass. 

The cat lifts it’s head a couple of times but is least bothered by our presence as we take pictures. We have been standing quietly on the same spot for over 20 minutes when we realise that the cheetah is not in particularly good mood for a perfect photo opportunity. We drive along, deeper into the park, where we see more animals; a family of hippopotamus, a herd of elephants, a lone giraffe, and a family of about seven sleeping lions. 

Though we have not had any dramatic any sightings, we have seen some of the famed big-five, in their natural habitat. Soon after seeing the lions, we end the game-drive. As we drive back towards Talek, a chartered plane flies above us as it heads for the Olkiombo airstrip, bringing with it a new group of tourists, out to experience the Mara, in all its majesty. We cross a particularly bad section of the Talek River and it is amazing how well our Xtrail holds up in that particularly bad terrain. 
Soon, we are in open country. Slowly, we drive along the winding road and out of the park. We are following the same route that only a day before, we had ridden across on mountain bikes. We drive along the dirt road, making little conversation, with everyone absorbed in their own thoughts. The ride across the Mara was everything I thought it would be and even more. Getting into it, I was prepared for physical exertion and fun. It was both of this! 

Idyllic- A cheetah lies in the lush grass 
As we leave the dirt road and make our way to the smooth tarmac road leading to Narok town, we all breathe a sigh of relief. I am glad I made this trip. While endless hours of preparation in the gym made it easy, it’s the time in the park that is truly memorable. As I say goodbye to this isolated piece of paradise, I carry forth with me great memories and a new-found love for cycling. I know that one day, I will be back to cycle across the Mara again. I only hope that it will be sooner, rather than later.

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