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500 kilometers by bike from Nairobi to Mombassa: planning the trip to IPPNW’s 23rd World Congress

November 15, 2022
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by Victor Chelashow

[Victor Chelashow, IPPNW Co-International Medical Student Representative, reflects on his experience leading a reconnaissance bike trip from Nairobi to Mombasa, Kenya. In April 2023, dozens of IPPNW Students, young doctors, and supporting members from around the world will take the 500km bike tour in advance of our 23rd World Congress in Mombasa, Kenya. Follow IPPNW Students on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram to stay up-to-date on the bike tour and get involved.]

A brief stop on a bridge outside of Voi, Kenya

It’s been slightly over a month since I wrapped up my first bike tour, enough time to accept that the trip is done and reflect on the lifelong impression the experience has on me. I learnt a lot from my friend and IPPNW colleague, Timothy Ronoh, who accompanied me on the trip, cyclists I met along the way, kind strangers, and from the trip itself. I thought it best to share thoughts and reflections as a novice rider hoping you find some inspiration and lessons, not just for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) bike tour in 2023, but for those who would like to take on biking as a hobby/way of life.

1.       It’s all possible; one pedal stroke at a time

When I left Nairobi for Mombasa, cycling 500 kms across the country seemed so abstract. “Is this actually happening? Am I going to make it?” I silently pondered on the morning of the first day. It all appeared surreal. I wondered why I had signed up for the challenge and whether I would make it to Mombasa (alive). I didn’t want to jinx the trip with negative energy and anxiety or worse, spread doubtful thoughts to the rest of the team (Timothy). I found it helpful to count the pedal strokes, focus on the daily target, and enjoy beautiful views. After the first 100 kms, the trip appeared feasible and I maintained the momentum henceforth. A journey of a thousand miles (or 500 kms) is realized one step/pedal push at a time. Start strong with a positive psyche – it’ll all be over before you know it.

2.      Everything will work out!

Planning and executing the trip was wrought with challenges and uncertainties. To find the perfect bike and apparel, we spent 3 days in Nairobi and had to push the start date by a day to work out on the details of the trip. Throughout the tour, we faced many predicaments – Timothy was bullied off the road by a naughty trucker and fell, I suffered headaches, sustained a puncture in a national park with no human settlements, strong headwinds, cold mornings and hot afternoons. However, headaches wane, injuries heal, winds cease and you will learn how to repair a puncture/other mechanical issues with the bikes. Instead of imploding when such challenges arise, embrace and learn from them. Anticipating challenges and planning is great but learning to improvise, innovate and adapt to problematic situations when caught off guard saves the day.   

3.      Choose your riding partner/s carefully

When I learnt that the reconnaissance tour would take two, I immediately started searching through my IPPNW friends list for a partner and I consider myself lucky to have found one who is dependable, determined and fun to hang out with. I greatly admire and cherish my close friends but when it comes to spending 24 hours a day for 5 days through a long and challenging ride, I get extra picky. Timothy had only learnt to cycle a couple months prior to the tour yet I knew I could spend time with him in all manner of challenges without wanting to shoot one another.  While we sometimes had different opinions like when to stop and for how long or when he told me point blank that I was sloppy to cycle with earphones on a busy road, we found a common ground that worked great for both of us and never got on each other’s nerves. If you find a partner that’s amicable, strong-minded, cautious and fun, a long journey will seem short and immensely fun. The perfect partner doesn’t exist but if you choose the wrong one, you will have a dreadful journey or worse, it could be over before it starts.

Timothy biking past an elephant crossing sign

4.      Pack light – only the essentials!

When packing for the tour, I only took the stuff that I absolutely needed. As a minimalist and enthusiast of frugal living, I had an easy time identifying what to cram in my bag; a set of clothes to wear when I am not on the bike, toothbrush, phone, collapsible water bottle, earphones, and credit card. It’s tempting to pack things one might not need with the feeling that ‘it’d be great to have this’. This adds to the weight on the bike and will be counterproductive especially during climbs. One can always buy things needed along the way so packing light is the best way to cut on total weight as the mass of the bike and rider cannot be modified. If possible, get a cycling backpack for comfort as they distribute weight on the shoulders, enhance visibility due to the reflective material, and have practicality with multiple pockets and straps. 

5.      Be seen, be heard

While this would sound like a youth/diversity campaign slogan, its application to biking is equally as appropriate. As I have grown up cycling in a town, I’ve got little to no fear for vehicles and other road users, and this instigated a near miss event. When on the road, be it day or night, ensure that you are easy to spot from the front and back. I wore fluorescent green apparel (not my best color, but meh) and had tail and headlights on whenever it was dark/foggy. If your lights use rechargeable batteries, always be sure to have them plugged in at night and turn them off during the day when you don’t need them so you don’t run out of power should you need them during the evening. We had lime colored helmets to the same effect.

In Nairobi, I’d yell ‘hello’ or ‘excuse me’ to politely inform pedestrians that I was coming through until I got a bell. In the same way, be keen for honks/bell rings from other road users for your safety. The near miss I had resulted from listening to a great podcast (New Books in Critical Theory) with noise cancellation earphones and I never got the hooting truck behind me. As it zoomed a few inches past me, I learnt not to use noise-canceling earphones on the road.

6.      Together yet alone – riding is about you, not them (sort of)

Much as I had great company during the tour, most of the time was spent on the bike alone. No doubt we found times where we could ride side by side and have a chat, but the majority of the ride was spent in tandem formation; with me ahead. I love speeding so I can feel the wind on my face and compete with other cyclists along the way. Tim, on the other hand, would rather pace himself. Neither of us was wrong in our approach to bike travel. Always pick a pace that works out for you and maintain it as it’s not a race. Even so, I would break frequently for him to catch up and have a quick chat before resuming.

Touring by bike is a solitary endeavor and a lot of mental energy is spent concentrating on pedaling and minding gears and one’s surroundings for safety and enjoyment reasons. I often got lost in introspection and contemplated decolonization in the disarmament space. I had nostalgia from when I used to ride my BMX as a child and I also thought of my family and pet dog. As I have the tendency to slip into depression especially when lonely, I spent the time reigning my inner voice, reassuring myself and reinforcing positive thinking patterns and coping strategies. Overall, the solitary hours of riding had a positive effect on my mental health.

Timothy (left) and Victor shortly after arriving in Mombasa

7.      Take advice (but with a pinch of salt)

Prior to leaving Nairobi, we met and took advice from cyclists who had done similar tours and got invaluable insights on what to anticipate along the way. Packing snacks, riding before the day got warm and resuming when the heat had subsided were some of the pro-tips we were lucky to gather. However, we were warned that all truckers are inherently mean and they’re going to give us a hard time all through. While there is no doubt about everything else, some truckers were taking caution, offering to help us when we had a puncture and when we were taking a break, would hoot to see if we were okay. Also, non-riders, despite their best intentions, may not be the best people to source cycling-advice from. “The road to Mombasa is flat, you’ll have a great time” and “there are no winds past Machakos” were we told only to meet a 6.3-km steep climb in Tsavo and battle headwinds all the way to Mombasa. Most of the advice and experience given on road conditions, weather and traffic have some truth to them but are subjective; listen and plan while managing expectations.

8.     There are good people out there, everywhere

I don’t know if it’s the effect I have on people but whenever we would go, we were met by the friendliest of faces with the kindest of hearts. From finding hotels to fixing a puncture, we were never let for a moment feel that we were beyond help or unwanted. We met a team of pro-cyclists who encouraged us on our way to Machakos and invited us for a chat and a group photo with them. When I forgot my pants with $30 in them, a hotel called me and I got everything back. I grew up in a world that shuns talking to and trusting strangers but I have learnt that there are genuinely good people and you can make friends anywhere. 

9.      Have fun and relax!

Don’t let steep climbs that make your thighs burn take the joy away from your bike tour. As the bike provides no barrier with the environment, I loved the wind blowing in my face and hair especially when I descended such hills and the thrilling sense of freedom that came with it. I acknowledge that I did some crazy stunts on my bike like ‘the slide’ (whenever I would find loose soil) and the ‘bump jump’. The sights and sounds of the great outdoors came alive as we traversed Tsavo National Park. I was lucky to spot an elephant, many troops of monkeys, squirrels, zebra, dik-dik and its cousin, lesser Kudu and innumerable bird species.

Off the bike, I’d celebrate the end of a day’s stretch with a cold beer (Tusker) and fun conversations. At the end of the trip, we went to the beach in Mombasa and for two days swam in the ocean, collected corals and shells as souvenirs and visited historic places. Unsurprisingly, the most vivid memories of the bike tour I have are of the fun moments. In today’s world where everything is rushing and fast, a bike’s slow pace is what one needs to unwind and chill.

10.  When it’s all over, you will want to do it again

When I got to Mombasa and had to send the bikes to Nairobi, I was in awe that it was actually over! On the road, there are moments when I dreaded the tour and wished that it was over yet I spent the first week after the trip in disbelief. Initially, I had hoped the bike tour would be a one-off but I now wish to make it a life thing. Luckily, this was a reconnaissance trip and next year in April, together with dozens of friends from IPPNW, I get to re-do the trip and maybe participate in more in the future. Until then, I will keep reminiscing on the recently concluded tour while practicing knowing the next year’s is going to be bigger, better and grander.

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