For rather convoluted reasons involving my partner’s work, and the logistics of looking after a very small child, I’ve found myself in rural East Africa, on a not-quite-but-sort-of-holiday. The place where we’re staying, Kisumu, is Kenya’s third largest city, but feels more like a small frontier town, with bustling markets, dirt roads, and cows holding up traffic as they cross the streets. And just beyond the edge of the city, mountains rise up, peppered with spectacular granite boulders. Like almost everyone reading this magazine who’s ever been on holiday without a bike, I start hatching plans to sneak off for a ride.
Bikes are common there, but only one type: the Black Mamba, an indestructible, single speed, sit-up-and-beg Chinese-made anachronism. Equipped with truss forks (eat your heart out, Jeff Jones) and rod brakes, and often augmented with racks and structural reinforcements carefully fashioned from construction rebar, these are still a ubiquitous feature of Kenyan traffic, often carrying passengers and heavy loads, often barely going faster than walking speed.
Mountain bikes do exist, but they’re invariably the sort of mild steel horrors that would cost a couple of hundred pounds in a supermarket here in the UK. The local bike tour company, which had a fleet of basic but modern hardtails, has packed up and relocated to Uganda, several hundred miles away, where there’s more of an established tourist trail. A friend recommends Dan, “a guy” who does hiking and mountain bike tours. I send an inquisitive WhatsApp, and he responds. He’d love to take me for a tour of the city. I explain that I’m keen to go mountain biking and he offers me a choice of three routes. I tell him I’d like to do the hilly one, and he arranges to pick me up later in the week.
Dan arrives in a Toyota pickup, looking dapper in a long-sleeved cycling top, Adidas Gazelles and cut-off jeans. He’s brought two bikes, a battle-worn Trek hardtail with V-brakes, and a more recent Giant, which he gives me to ride. As we set off, I notice his front brake is disconnected. I guess we won’t be riding anything too technical then. Dan is a bit embarrassed and explains that it’s really hard to get spare parts for bikes here, including brake pads. Nairobi, a 6-hour drive away, is the nearest potential source, and even there it can require protracted wrangling. Dan tells me the story of his toolkit, which he initially tried to order through a dealer there, and was quoted twice the RRP. Eventually he got it by asking a friendly British expat to buy it online and carry it over in her luggage.
We head off through the town, trying to ride as assertively as possible on roads that are increasingly being taken over by battered 4x4s and motorbike taxis. We turn off the main road onto dirt, but not the empty, tranquil kind: it’s heaving with lorries, motorbikes and pumped-up school buses that look like something out of Mad Max. The traffic isn’t fast though, and we soon join a quieter road that takes us out towards the mountains. A man passes us on a moto and I notice he’s wearing a Joy Division hoodie, probably unintentionally, but you never know. There’s a steady stream of guys on traditional bikes, and even a man with a handcycle who gives us a cheer and a thumbs up.
On the way we chat, mostly about bikes. Dan explains that he’s trying to build up a small guiding business after the one he used to work for relocated. He’s impressed by the videos he’s seen on YouTube of modern trail bikes with rear suspension, but he also thinks they’d be difficult to maintain in East Africa, with its non-existent dealer and support network. I tell him about the Giant store that’s just opened in Kigali, and he nods excitedly – it’s big news for every mountain biker in the region, despite the fact that it’s two countries and 800 km away.
The roads get quieter and we climb through Alpine scenery into the foothills of the Nandi mountains. The plants here are often oddly familiar: we have a lot of them growing in pots on our windowsills, but here they’re outdoors, and in the case of the enormous ficus trees, hundreds of times the size. We reach the pumping station that supplies Kisumu’s water, watched over by a very bored security guard and a troop of monkeys, and we have to turn around. I spy a couple of hiking trails going off into the hills that look tempting, but not on these bikes.
I think we’ll be going back the way we came, but Dan points us off down a track, explaining we can go a different way if I’m cool with crossing a makeshift bridge. It turns out to be a good call – there’s some fun singletrack which ends abruptly at a river. The “bridge” that Dan referred to turns out to be a couple of steel pipes laid side by side, so rusty that you can see daylight through them, ten feet above a muddy canyon. It’s all a bit too much like It’s A Knockout for my tastes, and it’s a relief when Dan offers to carry both bikes over, so I can shuffle across on my bum, to the disgust of the cattle herders on the opposite bank.
We hit the dirt roads again and the roadside gradually becomes busier as we head back into the city. Dan exchanges greetings in Kiswahili with almost everyone we meet, and gently deflects the attention of a slurring man who tries to beg money. At one point we have to inch round a massive bulldozer that’s re-grading the road. To be fair, the section after it is nice and smooth. We stop for Cokes at a roadside stall – glass bottles, no straws. East Africa has declared war on single-use plastic, although that doesn’t mean it’s a neat and tidy place.
The ride hasn’t been a smorgasbord of sweet singletrack – in fact we could have done all of it on gravel bikes, if such things existed out here. But it’s been good to get out, and I’ve enjoyed the moments of surreal familiarity amongst the novelty. It’s also left me feeling thoughtful. Mountain biking isn’t the most accessible sport in the UK, but we’re incredibly fortunate to have a network of retailers, trails and riding groups that’s simply missing from huge swathes of the world. It’s a shame, because Kenya could be fertile ground for off-road adventures. Just remember to bring spare brake pads.