One of the great joys of living at Kijabe is living on the Rift Valley Escarpment, a 2,000 foot ridge which drops from the alpine forests above us to the semi-arid plains below. There are no level surfaces here: every road, driveway, and forest sits on a steep pitch. Combined with the heavy foot traffic and herds of cows, sheep, and goats, the area is interlaced with world class ready-made mountain bike trails. Over the years, different people living here have pieced together routes to nearby villages, as well as faraway towns and lakes, entirely on trails. We decided to set out today on a mountain bike safari.
There are a handful of bikes and bikers here, and we have two skilled mountain bikers visiting, Thomas and Meghan Higgins. They live at 6,000 feet in Salt Lake City, and love to mountain bike, so they are looking forward to the challenge. Both Thomas and I are not on call this weekend, so we decided to put together an adventure.
We’re grateful for the loan of David Shirk’s mountain bike, as he is back in the US at the moment. Four of us assembled at our house, got tires pumped up, found helmets that fit, and packed enough food and water to get to our destination, a small hostel called Longonot Lodge, about 20 miles away. This lodge sits on a stunning plateau, surrounded by plains full of zebra, Thompson gazelle, hartebeest, and the occasional giraffe and buffalo, and ostrich. The lodge was originally built by Ernest Hemingway for his wife, and is now run by a German/Kenyan couple as a guest house. We had called the day before to book lunch at their outdoor restaurant.
We set out mid-morning, a brief climb followed by a high speed descent on a twisty, muddy road which descends through dense bush to “Old Kijabe Town”. This is the real Kenyan village, Kijabe Hospital being a later addition about a hundred years ago. As we reached the village, Michael suffered an early set back, a flat tire. We spent a good bit of time getting this fixed, as we went through two spare inner tubes which had holes in them, a pump which didn’t work, and finally used the wrong-size tube for his tire. Any port in a storm.
We continued the journey, climbing up above the village to bypass a deep ravine filled with stinging nettles. A brief, twisting descent on cow trails brought us to a broad, rolling trail called “old railway bed.” A non-imaginative name, as this trail represents the remnants of the colonial era Mombasa-Uganda railway, otherwise known as “the Lunatic Express.” This railways features in movies such as “Out of Africa” and “The Ghost and the Darkness”, and is best known for the two male lions of Tsavo which ate many workers and nearly halted the railways construction. As we ride, we are journeying over dark history, as the railway represents the worst of colonial ambitions.
We make our way down the fast paced, twisting trails. Segments of mud, spectacular vistas over the Kenyan planes, deep ravines where we form a human chain to transit bikes and each other to the far side. Thumping drum beats from local village churches , squealing groups of children, intimidating cacti lining the trail, dodging herds of cattle, goats, and sheep, and finally we arrive in the heat and humidity of the valley floor.
Next, we pass across the current railway, underneath a two lane highway, and set out alongside Mt Longonot, a dormant volcano that the Higgins family climbed several days ago. With Mt Longonot on our left, we wrap around its flank on dirt roads, climb up a thin steep road through a lava flow, and then a blazing descent onto the plain nestled between the heights of Mt. Longonot to the south and the glistening expanse of hippo-laden Lake Naivasha to our north.
We come to a crude gate, manned by no less than three “guards” who are a bit startled by our arrival. In a halting mix of swahili and English, we struggle to understand each other. Ann has passed by here an hour earlier with both ours and the Higgins children in the car, so we are eventually ushered onto the property. This gate marks the boundary of a massive land holding, Kedong Ranch, which itself is part of the bloody history of the Lunatic Express Railway. We descend further onto the plain, and enter paradise.
We are many miles from the nearest building, the nearest paved road, or any other signs of civilization. As we pedal across the plain, we are surrounded by herds of hartebeest, Thompson gazelle, and zebra. The many giraffe and buffalo in this region are nowhere to be seen today, and the ostrich are hiding somewhere as well. A short climb brings us to the top of the hill, where Ann and the children are already enjoying the peace of Longonot Lodge.
We sit down to a lovely lunch of locally caught tilapia (fish), buttery potatoes, and slivered carrots. Not bad for the middle of nowhere! The lodge uses solar water heating, and has a small wind farm for electricity. Hot coffee washes down the delicious food, and helps energize us after the long and tiring ride. The fatigue, gentle heat, lazy breeze, and overwhelming vista lull everyone into a state of relaxed contentment.
But the inevitable time for departure arrives, we load the bikes onto the car, and head back to Kijabe.
A quick check shows that the patients for tomorrow include the man who suffered a machete attack with multiple fractures who needs his wound covered with a “flap”, two women with broken legs, one with a broken ankle, and the lady with a broken wrist who was cancelled last week due to high blood pressure.
Weekends like this really allow us to dive into the week ahead with enthusiasm and energy, hopefully giving the best to our patients and staff. Family time, laughs with friends, and enjoying the amazing creation surrounding us fill our souls and make us all thankful for the work we’ve been called to do.