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Offline Osadabwa

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Off the Ngong Hills: Windmills, Stones and Thorns in Kenya
« on: July 23, 2014, 03:44:52 pm »
Question:  What’s better than a weekend day trip in Kenya?
Answer:  A weekday trip!

King Louis and I have flexible schedules and decided over a 4th of July bonfire to make use of that fact by embarking on a Friday motorbike ride.  I got on Google Earth and plotted out a number of good options south of Suswa where we did our last trip in May.



Above: The trip map – from Loresho to Ngong, down the hills and back around

Turns out for bikes there’s a brilliant little track from our neighbourhood to Ngong following disused old tar roads, farm tracks and paths that completely avoids the ugliness and traffic I normally associate with crossing to that side of town.  Considering how near to Nairobi we are, it was a surprisingly pleasant way to get going, once we finally got going that is.  King Louis had ignored my well-intentioned entreaties to maintain sobriety in advance of our ride and awoke heavy of head, swollen of liver and behind schedule, so we had some catching up to do.

The Ngong Hills, well known thanks to Karen Blixen’s account of her farm in Out of Africa, sit right on the edge of the Great Rift Valley and provide a green, breezy counterbalance to the Rift’s hot dustiness.  In the past decade or so, someone has taken advantage of the breeziness to install a few wind turbines there, which King Louis and I inspected before setting out.


Above: Approaching the Ngong Hills Wind Farm

I’d confirmed with bikers far more skilled than I that there is a track down to the valley just near the wind farm.  “Track” was an overstatement in places and there were some very technical areas of loose rocks varying in size from baby head to hippo skull.  I made good use of my newly installed bash plate on a couple of occasions, and struggled to keep my balance, waddling along with my feet as outriggers, forearms pumped and screaming.

http://youtu.be/QYstLOMQNgI
Above: Video link: descent to the valley


Above: King Louis negotiates the boulders, a KTM just the other side of the Ngong Hills


Above: Rocks and more rocks, the descent continues

King Louis was feeling the full weight of his Nimitz-class XR400 and its mega-fuel tank.  By the time we reached the bottom, he’d dropped her no fewer than three times, once pinning himself under her bulk and another time toppling her downhill at an angle he was unable to correct alone.  I found him on his butt in the dust, finger on the tank’s breather hose to keep fuel from spilling out like the proverbial Little Dutch Boy plugging the dyke.  So, by the time we reached the bottom, we were knackered and the clock had already crossed over 11:00 AM.


Above: And there were thorns too


Above: Still on the Ngong hills, King Louis takes a breather

At last, we reached the valley floor and were rewarded with a solid five minutes of quick, mind clearing riding before Louis announced he had a puncture.  Both of us had gone out with slow leaks, so we knew we were playing with fire but we hoped the Slime we’d put in the tubes would do the trick.  It didn’t, but Louis had brought a backup plan in the form of that fix-a-flat mousse stuff you can use on your car.  Eureka! It worked!


Above: The bottom of the Hills – a reservoir and some donkeys in the trees


Above: KL and his fix-a-flat, spinning the wheels a bit to spread it around

With all tires inflated, we set off again.  The track was much better: dry and dusty, stoney but not impossible.  No reason to fall down here, but I did.  I was looking over my shoulder to see if Louis was okay and managed to dump the bike hard on a flat stone, shaving off some of the newly installed 13L fuel tank and filing away a bit of the left side engine cover which later began weeping engine oil.  I was no worse for wear, and was happy I’d installed proper hand guards.

For fun, I swapped bikes with Louis to let him see how the other half live.  It was an experience, jumping back on an old XR400.  I was surprised how unsure it made me feel in some situations, and how solid and firm she was in others.  An XR is still a wonderful bike, but now that I’ve tasted what the 21st Century has to offer, I’ll not likely be going back.

http://youtu.be/KmhONUzHw58
Above: Video Link: A few minutes back on the XR400

While we were playing hide and seek with the trail, Louis apparently made a point of running over every thorn in the valley.  Within moments of retaking ownership of my lovely orange steed, I was feeling the stones a bit more forcefully than usual on the front end.  Attempts to inflate the tube and let the Slime do its magic were useless.  Taking off the tyre, I found no fewer than 5 thorns the size of toothpicks that had to be gouged out before I could install my spare tube.  We took the opportunity to have a bit of lunch, and didn’t get back on the trail until after 1:30.


Above: Tracks and flats

There was brilliant riding from the puncture point to the Magadi tarmac, but I was too busy enjoying it to mess about with the camera and it was getting late already.  We pulled into Oltepesi for a warm Coke and didn’t aim back toward home until around 3:00 PM.  Since I was leading, I took us back onto the dirt, but promised not to do any exploring.  With Google Earth, I’d identified the turquoise track visible in the map above which would have shaved off many a kilometre, but given the time and our luck with tires, we decided to stick to big dirt instead and spent the rest of the afternoon blasting in 4th, 5th and 6th toward Suswa and around back to Ngong, loving the funky desert scenery.


Above: Louis at the “Smart Shop” in Oltepesi, my leaking side cover


Above: Cows determined to find something… water maybe?

The road was ripe for ripping: wide double track, mostly sand and dust, bendy but not extreme.  The plumes of dust could have been seen from space.  Though not my favourite type of track, I wasn’t complaining since the scenery and the throaty groan of the bike lurching forward was keeping me entertained.  At one point, among an outcropping of black volcanic rubble, the heat was noticeably higher and I thought I was hallucinating when I saw the plant in the next pic.  They were all over the place, like wads of a giant’s chewing gum, discarded and melting on the stones.  A virtual high-five to anybody that can identify the things for me.


Above: World’s oddest desert plant

http://youtu.be/wHZrKMHETW4
Above: Video link: Speedy dirt, cows, goats, and desert plants


Above: Afternoon on the big road


Above: The Great Rift Valley from inside


Above: Donkeys, Baptist signposts and less successful windmills

All told, we put in just over 220 km (the very limit of my big tank), nearly all of it out in the dust, thorns and stones.  It was a bit of everything, and we had a blast, possibly more so because it was Friday and most of our friends were at work.  I think we might just have to make a habit of it in fact… though next time I’m riding with mousses!
 

Offline Osadabwa

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Take II
« Reply #1 on: October 24, 2014, 06:05:32 pm »
If at first you don’t succeed: try, try again!  That’s the adage, right?  So, as soon as Louis got around to fixing his tank brackets and Atreyou got back from Sunny South Sudan, we found a time to attack the Google Earth tracks I queued up in September.


Above: Red – Louis’ tank fail ride, Orange – Do-over with Atreyou and K. Louis

From home, we’re 15 minutes from dirt.  It’s an odoriferous leap across the Kangemi Flyover, a diesel smoke-clouded sprint up Wayaki Way, down the winding and incredibly potholed Muhuri Road (old tar in Kenya is worse than any of the dirt tracks) and a 2km slice of Dagoretti-Karen before our track begins and takes us through field and homestead over the top of the Kibiko Forest.  We bypass all of Karen and Ngong and are spit out after a brilliant half hour of quick two-track and rocky path on the big dirt leading to the valley from Ngong town.  So far, my favourite route to the valley, hands down.


Above: Clean and posing, kissing babies, getting started

Once off the escarpment, lorded over by the Ngong Hills wind farm above, we take a chance on a dirt track with the signpost for a shooting range.  The farther we go the more military and less civilian it appears, and at a junction we come across a gigantic army-green people carrier, plodding up the way.  Not long after that, we bump into an encampment with all the necessary razor wire and obligatory green tenting you could ask for.  Although not certain where the track goes, we aren’t keen to stop and ask the KDF (given their reputation following West Gate), so we dive into the bush to go around the camp on a footpath that T-s up with a 4x4 track and re-aligns with my GPS track.

The riding is excellent.  Rains from the week before have left the grip secure and the dust to a minimum.  We blast through thorn trees past Maasai homesteads, some of whom have surrounded large chunks of territory with acacia thorn fencing that have to be dismantled (ouch) and rebuilt (ouch ouch) in order to proceed.  It’s not clear if they’re saying “don’t drive here” or if, since nobody has driven there for years, they’ve just written the road off as abandoned.  Every homestead is planted directly in the path of the road like a knot in a long rope.


Above: Euphorbia Candelabra and Atreyou in the neverending-bush


Above: Great riding below the Ngong Hills past the shooting range

The best tracks for me are the ones that change it up a lot but keep it moving.  This track is great for that.  It’s easy enough to follow, but small enough to leave you guessing what’s coming around every corner.  Sometimes it is dirt, sometimes long stretches of melon- and softball-sized stones scratched out of the way by some long-ago corroded bulldozer.  And best of all, the track leads somewhere: in an hour we connect with a T-junction offering us the explorer’s perennial choice: Left or Right?


Above: Atreyou, Osadabwa


Above: A stony section before the big T

Consulting my GPS while Atreyou empties two water-bottles full of fuel into his Beta’s competition-sized tank, I decide to take the right fork.  I am keen to find out if there is a way to connect two big dirt superhighways I know using old 4x4 tracks found on Google Earth.  All in favour, we set off up the road and jump off a few km later onto another lovely track.  It takes us through more thorn fences which are a right pain in the ass if I’m honest, but since they’re not yet delineating private property and constructed of stainless steel barbs, I can’t complain.  One day this area will all be owned, cultivated and domesticated, the Maasai will have been expunged or assimilated, and the world will have lost a little bit of magic in the process, at least for bikers.


Above: Thorn fences, thorn fences and more thorn fences


Above: Atreyou and King Louis and a really big, uh… rhymes with rock

The track takes us North along the top of a scrub-covered ridge before hooking back to the South, down into the valley.  The view is spectacular.  Seeing where all the hills converge and knowing we are diving into that unknown valley is thrilling.  Hungry, we decide to find the first decent spot to have our lunch which takes the shape of a lush umbrella tree full of birds.  The sound of thunder and the smell of not-so-far-off rain coming from the East fill us with an atavistic sense of excitement mixed with foreboding. A deluge would make the rest of the day interesting indeed, especially if the track we’re on dead-ends.


Above: Lunch

Lunch is always a mixed blessing.  Obviously the body needs fuel, but having been pushed all morning long, as soon as the fuel is added, the body seems keener to take a nap than tackle the unknown.  Nevertheless, we dig deep and pack up the bikes, ignoring our deadbeat carcasses and urged on by the slowly advancing storm.  By the time we’re riding, the drops have begun to fall and the path takes on a sinister hue and shine.  Still descending, we drop down long stretches of now rainwater-slick stones before hitting the valley bottom, the brooding Mt. Esakut to our left, topped with inky clouds.


Above: The rain-soaked descent


Above: King Louis on Mt. Esakut’s flanks

Having conquered the descent, the sandy tracks of the valley offer the zippy return of flatter terrain and we sprint along toward Oltepesi until, waiting at a turnoff, Atreyou shows me his punctured front tyre.   Given the number of thorns we’d ridden over, it was inevitable.  First, Louis tries to use his magic car tyre fix-a-flat, but the low-budget construction of the applicator breaks apart in his hands.  Nothing for it but to do a road-side repair, and while we scout around for a nice rock to prop the bike on we find our position being monitored by a herd of giraffes: eight adults and three babies in all.  Incredible.


Above: Back on the valley floor, Atreyou gets a flat


Above: Counting the giraffe herd


Above: Atreyou’s roadside repair service at your service.  Our Motto: Fix a flat in nothing flat!


Above: King Louis and a Maasai onlooker

The giraffes watch us awhile but are eventually spooked off.  Soon the sun emerges from the clouds, raising the temperature and humidity as the plains heave a skyward sigh.  A herd of goats, accompanied by their own red-clad Maasai watchman pass by, munching and bell-tinkling as they go.  Needing to be back in Loresho by 5:00, we decide to hunt down a cold Coke at Masabi Ranch and hit the fast and easy roads back home. 

Half an hour of tarmac, another half hour of big dirt and mud puddles and we’re retracing our steps up the path from Ngong to home.  At one point, stopping to re-attach my number plate, a group of drunken, Miraa (Khat) chewing youths descend upon us, fist-bumping and high-fiving us in an amiable but insistent greeting.  Playing along while I keep working, the others ham it up with a lot of back-slapping and bravado, keeping the guys jovial.  The moment is immortalised at last with a cell-phone pic, which I love since it puts us on the receiving end of a voyeurism that has been distinctly one-sided in Africa for the past several centuries.


Above: Stopping in a peri-urban area attracts other types of wildlife: drunks and punks, and puts us on the receiving end of the camera’s lens.

Getting lazy as the day ends, I let my guard down on that cursed Muhuri Road and eat a pothole the size and depth of Mt. St. Helens with predictable results: Snakebite. Pinch Flat.  Urban roadside repairs not being our favourite pastime (the hordes of people it attracts being a major turn-off) we decide to just form a delta around me and my wounded bike and wobble and bob back down Wayaki Way as the matatus hurtle past.   Not the most heroic end to a wicked daytrip, but back at Louis’s for a celebratory beer, we’re all smiles. 

Until next time!
 

Offline Osadabwa

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Another one!?
« Reply #2 on: October 24, 2014, 06:08:15 pm »
I have to pinch myself: Two rides in two weeks?  October’s shaping up to be a brilliant month, and it’s about to get better.  End of next week, I’m going to do a 3-day, 500 km rally raid with a group of friends.  It’ll be my first motorcycle competition, and I’m half psyched and half intimidated.  It was Mr. Labda’s idea.  He called a week ago and, despite having little experience, a borrowed motorbike and what seems to be a thinly veiled case of bipolar disorder, suggested we do the rally.  I became hooked on the idea and we set up a day to get in some practice miles.  It was a blast.


Above: Turquoise outlines our latest route

So Labda shows up with no water, a 5 L steel jerry can in a rucksack and a pair of totally shagged Fox MX boots that need to be held together with strips of innertube.  We swap out the 5L can with two 1.5 L plastic bottles (a little less deadly if he comes off the bike), send him home for a water bladder (which he finds is broken) and get fuel and a couple of Snickers’ for the road.  I think our chances of finishing the day are somewhere on the wrong side of 40/60, but here we are in our fancy pants, so lets go!


Above: I think praying is probably a good idea… Mr. Labda and his 520 at the fuel spot

We take our usual backroads and find ourselves racing through fields and homesteads.  At the bottom of the first rocky section, I stop to see how Labda’s doing.  He’s right there on my heels, happy as a clam.  We’re moving up towards 60/40 odds and I’m enjoying myself.


Above: Me, enjoying myself


Above: Doubletake – Labda navigating the boulders

Since the purpose of the ride is to emulate the rally, we decide to hit a bigger track to get the speed up awhile.  We blast just under the Ngong Hills until a massive washout kicks us into the bush.  We bushwhack awhile until we can rejoin the road and follow it until we come across another one of my untested Google Earth tracks.  As the best ones do, this track starts out big and easy and disintegrates as it goes.  Dropping into a brilliant valley lined with mature yellow barked fever trees, it then thinned out into loose stones bulldozed to one side.  We both drop the bikes a time or two, but press ahead over the pass and down the side of another valley.

TOO BAD WE CANT EMBED VIDEO
Above: Mr. Labda attacks the valley


Above: Bigger dirt turns to confusion… hunting for  the track


Above: Labda gives the A-OK sign after dragging himself out of a dry riverbed


Above:  Ever thinner, stonier, tougher… Labda presses on

Having conquered a very rocky dozen kilometres or so, with loose stones the size of mangoes throwing us this way and that, we emerge on a track and Labda says: “Hey, I know this place!  There’s a beautiful viewpoint just up the hill”.  Owned by a pair of Swedish gals apparently, the vacant campsite overlooks the valley and makes a brilliant spot for us to have our modest lunch.


Above: At the campsite overlook


Above: Labda’s boots leaving their mark, me and the bikes at lunch

After PB & J's, I consult my GPS and find that we’re not far from another Google Earth track I’d been keen to try out.  The track climbs up a valley, flattens out into a green treeless plain awhile, and then juts up a steep hillside.  Half way up, we find a work crew busy erecting a stone structure.  It’s a campsite in the making and after asking permission, we ride the walking trail right to the top of the highest viewpoint to take in the panorama.  Brilliant.


Above: Climbing the campsite walking path to the apex


Above: On top, Ngong Hills in the background

Sliding back down the hill and retracing our steps a bit, we eventually find a track that leads to the valley.  From above, we could see several muddy reservoirs dotting the hillsides, so it is no surprise when we come across baboons and gazelles grazing nearby.
 

Above: Baboons and gazelles of the track

The track takes us faithfully to the valley floor.  I say “Okay, that’s enough for today, lets just blast it back home” only to change my mind fifty meters later when a particularly enticing double track catches my eye.  It’s a brilliant detour from the big dirt and takes us right up to the main Ngong dirt road very near the shooting range road I’d led us on the week before.  Once again, we pass several military trucks and I vaguely wonder if maybe it’s a live military training area we keep riding through… and that maybe we’d end up in a “training accident”.


Above: Back into the valley past a Masai boma

Back to our return track, we open up and start racing for home.  Retracing our steps to the rocky bit from morning, we find a boda-boda on its side, gravity having mercilessly toppled his bike which was attached to two gigantic bags of illegally made charcoal.  He was plopped right in the track, so I helped him wright his ship and gave him a push up the incline as the weak 125cc Chinese motor moaned pitifully under the enormous load.


Above: Riding home and the overloaded bodaboda

Amazingly, we arrive home unscathed.  We’d had no major spills, no major mechanical faults and no deaths.  What I thought this morning was going to be a near-certain disaster turned out to be one of the most interesting and varied rides I’d done so far in Kenya.  Labda had ridden like a champ over some really tough terrain and was up for anything I threw at him.  I’m not sure we’re any more prepared than yesterday for the rally raid, but at the end of the day, who cares?
 

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Re: Off the Ngong Hills: Windmills, Stones and Thorns in Kenya
« Reply #3 on: October 24, 2014, 08:32:18 pm »
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