When two university researchers, with a burning enthusiasm in mountain biking, go to Nairobi for five weeks to teach, it is clear that the bikes will be taken along. Our goal was to practice purposefully in May 2019 for the upcoming summer races despite the challenging conditions. Noora once again aimed for the top spots in Tahko’s mtb women’s series and Mikael had set a goal to race below 7:30 in Tahko’s longer race, i.e. 120 km. Over the weeks, we showed, at least to ourselves, that if one is properly dedicated to cycling, one can overcome less favorable conditions.
Nairobi, a metropolitan classified as dangerous
The capital of Kenya, Nairobi, is about 150 km south of the equator at an altitude of nearly 1,800 meters. The city is estimated to have five million inhabitants, but the population of large slums in particular is very difficult to estimate. Although Nairobi has developed strongly in recent years, it still has a bad reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
There are three types of residential areas in Nairobi: The upper class lives mostly in walled areas in large detached houses. Middle-class residential areas have apartment buildings without walls. The poorest population lives in slums, which consist mostly of small huts lined with corrugated sheet metal. The largest of the slums in Nairobi and at the same time in East Africa is Kibera, where about a million people live in an area of a couple of square kilometers. Most of them have no work, no running water and no sanitation.
Our teaching visit in Nairobi was related to a three-year project in collaboration with the University of Kenyatta (KU), the University of Helsinki and Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. KU’s main campus is located in the northern part of Nairobi, along a large and busy highway (Thika road). We rented an apartment about 7 km from campus, near Thika Road, in the Kasarani district. Kasarani is a typical middle class area through which a busy asphalt road passes. Our apartment was in a house that was along a sandy alley 100 m from an asphalt road. As in many other places in Nairobi, our house had no address.
Our colleagues at the university considered the security of the house to be adequate, but most terrified the area – it was reportedly far too dangerous for a European, they thought. For us, this was quite an exaggeration, but we were still cautious. We didn’t move outside after 10pm, when the number of people on the streets started to decrease. We always dressed as modestly as possible, and the smartphone was never used outdoors. We also adhered to the principle of kindness: we greeted the people and also told us where we come from and why we live in Kasarani. It was pretty easy to recognize us in the area, so very quickly we became familiar with market sellers, for example. The kids also seemed to like us. While washing the bikes outside our house, there were many little helpers in line.
Challenges of commuting
Cycling is not a big phenomenon in Kenya. There are hardly any bike paths in the city, nor are zebra crossings or traffic lights (except right in the city center). People travel in their own cars, buses (matatu) or on a motorcycle (Boda-Boda). Sometimes you see men cycling with an old bike, but we saw no local women on the bike.
Kenya has some avid cycling enthusiasts, mostly road riders. In Nairobi, from time to time, we saw road riders with top equipment. On the local Facebook site, Kenya cycling has nearly 30,000 members, but many of these are from abroad. The site highlights the challenges of the cycling hobby: there is little money for decent equipment, good bikes and spare parts are not easily available locally, bikes are stolen and it is very dangerous to ride in traffic. Infrastructure also brings its own challenge: in the center of Nairobi, the streets are asphalt, but elsewhere, with the exception of the main streets, bumpy dirt roads that turn muddy in the rain. There are hardly any traffic lanes for cycles.
We had packed along our old hardtail mountain bikes, because we would be riding mainly on dirt roads and asphalt. Nor did we expect many roots or rocks to be found in the forests of Nairobi. In addition, leaving the old bike locked outside still seemed a tolerable risk. In our house, the bikes were kept in the courtyard, but with two locks locked to the railing and to each other. There were no problems.
Teaching was from Monday to Thursday, We decided to commute by bike as a starting point for training these days. For the weekend, we were going to do long runs or intense training in the Karura forest, more on that later in this article.
Thika road is a six-lane highway with local roads on both sides. A local rarity was also found on its edge: a traffic lane for bikes. The latter, however, has more Boda-Boda drivers crawling on their motorcycles, and they cared little about traffic rules. The Boda drivers came at varying pace from every direction. Despite this, the route gave us a good starting point for commuting. To the east, the journey to the university gate took 25 min, which we extended by making a quarter-an-hour circle along the paths of a nearby wasteland. These paths were, according to our local colleagues, an area of dangerous bandits and drug addicts, but at seven in the morning we encountered only sleeping shepherds and praying elderly people in the area.
The biggest problem on the morning commute was the roundabout in the Githurai district. In its vicinity, the pedestrian and cycling lane has been taken over by local market vendors and bus stops, which made cycling impossible. We were forced to drive with the cars, which is at least chaotic. However, we quickly learned that most motorists pay attention to cyclists when they clearly show the direction of travel with hand signals and at the same time briskly move there. Uncertainty was interpreted to give way to others. We looked out for buses, and learned not to stay on the side of the big matatus – the bus could change lanes at any time without warning.
In the morning, driving to university was still tolerably successful this way. Afternoon, on the other hand, was worse. We should have been riding the other side of Thika Road, which is closer to Githura slum area. A one-time visit on wheels on the slum side was enough to tell us that a muzungu had better to stay out of that area. On the other side, too, cycling home was not easy because we would have had to cycle against car traffic, which also seemed too risky.
Surprises in the prison forest A
A look at local maps showed that we could drive a little longer route from KU through the north, back to the apartment. The distance would be about 17 km and included a few kilometers of rural land and also some dirt paths next to the highway. At the beginning of the route, we drove through the residential area next to the university. Once again, we heard how dangerous that area is for us, but the afternoon bikes showed something completely different. Children returning from school and Boda-Boda drivers waiting for customers waved excitedly and shouted greetings as we cycled past.
After this, we continued towards a more rural route in a small forest. This route was fine, but to our surprise it ended at the gate of the highest security prison…. inside the gate! After chatting for a while with the guards, we got permission to ride through, they didn’t see a problem, but were mostly excited about the new acquaintance… and we were on a good cycling route.
In the third week, the treatment changed, though not at the gate, but in the wasteland where the forest route began. There was no sign of prison or gates, but yet there was suddenly a guard with a shotgun pointing at us. He was accompanied by a security guard who wanted to arrest us for an unauthorized stay in the prison area. Fortunately, the boss of the security guard was jogging close to us and he calmed down the situation and explained that written permission must be obtained from the prison if he wants to move around the area.
We then wrote a permit request the next day at work and printed it. After the weekend, Noora went to give her lectures and Mikael drove to the prison to present the permit issue. The guard directed Mikael to his foreman, who directed him inside the prison to his own foreman (whom we had met on the run the previous week), who directed to an even higher boss, who eventually wrote a permit. In total, 1.5 hours passed with bowing and handshakes in the prison. However, during the rest of our stay, we were riding in the prison area without anyone asking us anything again.
All in all, a five-week commuting in Nairobi can’t be called a very relaxing experience, but with good planning and preparation, it was reasonably successful. A few chaotic-looking crossings of the street or driving in a circle combined with left-hand traffic were particularly stressful, but we quickly learned that you just have to act clearly and show what you are doing. Apparently, so much more is happening in Nairobi’s traffic that two mountain bikers aren’t too surprising. In Finland, the conditions for commuting are from a completely different planet and it is good to remember when we complain about small bumps in asphalt.
All rides included constant greetings and a waving of the hand. We quickly learned the main greetings of Swahili (“hujambo?” And “Habari?”), and how to answer when someone reacts to these. High fives were given to the children. The most common call to us was “muzungu,” which is roughly the same as European – or Caucasian. That, in turn, was answered with a wave of the hand and a smile. In Finland, you can drive in peace in your own thoughts.
Higher intensity and training volume in the Karura forest
Four working days amounted to 6 hours of basic endurance type riding. Although the bumpy roads of Nairobi were suitable for mountain biking, commuting did neither provide proper off-road riding, nor an opportunity for intensive training. On our previous visits and looking at maps in advance, we had discovered three nature areas in Nairobi: the Ngong hills (a well-known range of hills from Karen Blixen’s books), the Ngong forest, and the Karura forest. For the first two, we would have had to ride along the hectic streets of Nairobi in at least 25 km in one direction, but the Karura forest was only 10 km from Kasarani. In addition, there was no need to cycle through the city center, but mainly using the quietly trafficked streets of the upper class districts. The only stress-point during the half an hour driving turned out to be another one of Thika Road traffic circles, but as for working days, we succeeded with clear determination and good hand signals.
The Karura forest has an interesting history. The forest was founded in 1932, but it has been sought many times to cut down to give place for upper-class housing. The fiercest battles took place in the late 1990s, led by Green Belt Movement leader and nature activist Wangari Muta Maathai. The forest was saved and Maathai finally won the Nobel Peace Prize for her life’s work in 2004 as the first African woman. There is still a section in the Karura forest dedicated to Maathai.
The Karura forest is about 1000 ha in size and is divided into two parts. Cycling around the larger part is about 12 km and the smaller half of this. However, both parts are full of smaller and larger paths, and using them there was no problem in getting 3-4h long runs. There were hardly any very technical trails, but the narrow singletrack trails meandering in the woods and the slightly wider cart tracks were nice and fast to drive. The area was quite hilly. The longest climbs were about 5-6 minutes long when driven hard. At an altitude of almost 2,000 meters, these gave the people of Helsinki a sufficient physical challenge.
The Karura forest is fenced and there is an entrance fee. The fence around the area is important for safety. When we first came to the gate, we were immediately classified as local residents and got inside at a cheaper price, i.e. 2 euros.
There were plenty of walkers, joggers and also riders in good weather. Most of the people strolling in the forest were from elsewhere, probably working in embassies and the UN. On the first run we came across a couple of Dutch people who had decent mountain bikes and also a good riding pace. With them, we first got to know the best trails. There are two bike rentals in Karura at the main entrances. Both have fair bikes under local standards, but in European terms, we were pleased to have our own bikes with us. Next to the second rental shop was a very great cafe where we could enjoy heavenly, fresh fruit smoothies and avocado bread during the break of a long ride.
The Karura forest was absolutely central to the training. With the help of it, the training amounts of the week were brought to the level of 12-15 h and at the same time it was possible to do the necessary intensive exercises. At its most challenging, Karura was in rainy weather. In Kenya, most of the soil turns into complete mud in the rain, which adheres to the tires and, in the worst case, may even prevent the tire from rotating. Especially in the second half of our stay, these rainy days were a little too often.
Karura clearly showed the social division of society. The area is surrounded on three sides by upper-class residential areas, but there is a smaller slum in one corner. A large proportion of the slum’s residents work as servants to rich people and embassies – the slum provides cheap and close-to-the-job temporary housing. While the location next to the lush Karura and the small size of the slum make this slum more pleasant than the huge Kibera and Githurai, it is also not a place where one should live.
Other opportunities for cycling in Kenya
Our cycling focused on the proximity of Nairobi, but there are several other opportunities for mountain biking in Kenya. Once mentioned, Ngong hills is a series of hills rising up to 2,500 meters, topped by a hiking trail. The route on the hillside is not entirely cyclable without leash sections, but climbing to the windmills at the very beginning of the route and admiring the scenery there would be a thing worth experiencing. There are also trails suitable for mountain biking in the forests on the lower slopes of the hills, for which it is possible to get guided mountain bike tours.
Mount Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya and the second highest in East Africa. It takes about four days to reach the peak at an altitude of 5,000 meters along the footpath, but there are many routes in the area that can take even longer to cycle. Mount Kenya offers mountain bike tours of various lengths and levels. Mount Kenya and other national parks in Kenya also host mountain bike safaris where you can see wildlife really close.
If you like more self-guided tourism, interesting areas include Eldoret, Nandi hills and Iten, located north of Nairobi. In particular, Iten has long been known as a high-ranking training mecca for top runners. We visited there in 2017 and based on what we saw, the area would seem to have potential for mountain biking as well, thanks to an extensive dirt road network. Although Iten is a small village, there are good accommodation facilities for runners. Another opportunity for an independent adventure might be to ride mountain bikes 500 km from Nairobi to Mombasa. A new train connection was built between these cities a few years ago. In the vicinity of the rail, there is practically a dirt road all the way. During the trip you will most likely also see elephants and other wildlife, as the route passes through Tsavo National Park. The old town of Mombasa with its spice markets and historic buildings is definitely worth a visit.