I explain why and how I’m updating my expectations of cycling in—and around—parks and reserves throughout East Africa (2,400 words).
When we reached the western boundary of Tsavo West National Park, I allowed myself to be distracted from a haircut that embarrassed me. I thought it made my face look fat. After a few days of moaning about it in Nairobi, where it had been cut by Betty of Betty’s Salon—my fault not hers—we left the Kenyan capital, cycling east. In the late afternoon a few days later, we reached Tsavo West and for the first time had to decide what to do in a national park, cycle through or hitchhike. This is what distracted me.
Maybe it’s surprising that it was our decision. There’s only one National Park in Kenya—Hell’s Gate—where cycling is officially permitted. But parks, reserves and conservancies don’t exist in isolation. Main roads run through many of them, or along their boundaries. All sorts of traffic flows along these roads and that means cyclists generally can as well.
The electric fence that encircles Tsavo West meets the road, opens for it and resumes on the other side. There’s no fence running parallel to the road. I get unrealistic ideas from these fences, and the exact location of the park edge on Google Maps where the green shading ends. That night we camped at this break in the Tsavo West fence, by a police checkpoint. Any animal could have stepped onto the road and left the park through this gap, perhaps enticed by the smell of our dinner or of us. But camping outside the park’s official boundaries, if only by a hundred metres or so, made us feel safe. The armed police certainly helped.
The police told us to ask the rangers about cycling through the park. We walked over and bought biscuits and warm soda in their canteen, looked at the canvas tents they live in, and at the women washing their clothes. I asked one ranger if we could cycle through Tsavo West on the highway and he said “I wouldn’t, but it’s up to you.” I don’t know what answer I was hoping for.
We didn’t cycle through. Instead we caught a lift with road engineers, lifting our bicycles into their pickup truck the next morning after the police flagged them down. They helped us spot buffalo and elephants as we roared along at high speeds, and told us that the only people we’d see on the road outside of a vehicle were those who had lost their minds. We saw a few of them, bedraggled and pacing along the highway. The lions hadn’t eaten them yet, or were they the survivors?
These main roads through parks, these porous boundaries are a boon for bicycle travellers and over-landers. We get to see unlikely juxtapositions: giraffes near a Coca-Cola billboard; a brightly coloured house with laundry on a line, and across the road zebra with their babies; a broken-down semi truck near a family of elephants. We paid the fee and rode through Hell’s Gate National Park, admiring its canyons and delighting in warthog’s tails flicking up as they ran away. But on the main road outside of the park that runs along Lake Naivasha, we stopped for giraffes crossing the road and for beady-eyed baboons. These experiences feel like free safaris, and we get smug about them. Perhaps we just set the bar low for animals we get excited about!
Sometimes I tell people that we don’t camp in National Parks. This is kind of true, and a little irrelevant. When I say this, I’m also addressing my own concerns, but should know better. I’m from Coquitlam, where one runs a small but real chance of confrontation with bears in their backyards or on their walk to school. The city puts signs up. Coquitlam’s residents don’t consider their home to be a wild place. It’s urban, but once in a while there are cougars pacing the Skytrain station. My mom walks most days up a trail through berry bushes and I don’t think she brings bear spray.
In Coquitlam, I grew up with the knowledge that bears, cougars and coyotes were everywhere, or could be, and it stopped affecting my decisions. It never prevented me from walking around at night. Over here in the land of animals that seem exotic to me, I haven’t found a good middle ground yet. I swing between extremes. Sometimes I assume that nature follows human boundaries and am surprised when it doesn’t. This is the thinking I had when we camped outside the break in the electric fence at the Tsavo National Park entrance, and felt pretty sure that the animals wouldn’t reach us. Alternatively, I start to think that things that scare me, like mambas and hyenas, could be anywhere. And then everywhere seems scary.
The over-fearful approach has not been too limiting. With a few big exceptions I’ve still gone riding or camping in the areas I feared, even if it meant some stress along the way, maybe even a little regret. Evan’s going to read this and remind me that we avoided a route in Kenya because a drunk veterinarian told us that buffalo there lick people to death, but I’m writing this post, not him. Maybe the areas that I feared too much we avoided for good reason.
It’s the other extreme that has been problematic, the false sense of security in areas where caution is still needed. I’ve even decided that places are safe based on their name!
I went to Friendly Forest Preschool in a little place called Anmore, developing positive early associations with the word forest. I also have this idea that forests have pine trees and moss and boulders and squirrels, and that the only things in them that can harm you are cold weather, grizzly bears and beaver fever. I went to the forests of Anmore sometimes in high school, for parties, because some of the popular group lived in large houses there. Then, Anmore’s forests were where you could stumble around drunk at night and nothing bad would happen to you.
Kenya is mostly warm and doesn’t have bears, so there’s nothing to fear in forests, right? In Kakamega Forest I stepped around dead logs to lock our bicycles to a tree as we prepared to camp. Only later did I learn that this beautiful forest, with trees over one hundred years old, is home to different types of neurotoxic snakes including Jameson’s Mamba and the aggressive Forest Cobra. They only sleep in logs—kidding, but they have to make their home somewhere, right? The next morning we popped out of the forest to rejoin the road, and soon saw the carcass of a killed Forest Cobra that looked like a thick, black garden hose. If I’d have known in advance about the snakes, I may have still wild camped in Kakamega Forest. I would have been a lot more cautious of my surroundings and where I put my hands and feet. Neurotoxic snake bites are difficult to treat in rural areas.
One night in September, Evan got up from bed to pee. He put his bare feet onto the concrete floor of our dark thatch cabin in a Malawian National Reserve, and felt a sharp pain. After the yelling for help, my Dad walking with the ranger, the bumpy ride to the hospital with me massaging Evan’s leg wrapped in a sheet, a few injections, he was fine. We assume it was a little scorpion that stung him—we’d seen them around, sprayed them with mosquito repellent when they disturbed our dinners on the porch. Their sting is usually not dangerous, just very painful, and scary until you know it’s not dangerous. We spent the night in the men’s ward without much sleep. I laid on the floor under Evan’s cot and belatedly Google-d the scorpions of Southern Africa.
My Mom was so relieved this hadn’t happened while Evan and I were wild camping somewhere on our bicycles. We were all relieved. But when we camp, except in places with “Forest” in their name, we tend to be quite careful with checking our shoes and our surroundings. Evan got complacent in the cabin.
Why cycle in parks and untamed spaces or even on their fringes if it seems like I’m just scared all the time? I think we’re just trading risks. Within parks or less settled areas, there’s generally less fast-moving traffic—the greatest risk to bicycle travel anywhere. There are benefits to braving the traffic and remaining in more populated areas: Food is easier to find, there’s more people to talk to and ask for help, the roads are sometimes better quality, larger distances can be accomplished.
The wilder areas also have their temptations. Trees I’ve never seen before, birds and monkeys making sounds, difficult rough roads, quiet. Landscapes that I imagine haven’t changed significantly in a long time. The accountability of having to take care of yourself if anything bad happens. And it is quite something to see the different animals, ones that are rare or absent on settled land. It’s just that if I see them as dangerous, I tend to appreciate seeing them when they’re safely in my past.
Sometimes I meet people who see this differently. They are confronted by creatures that can be lethal and think “it’s so beautiful, regal, I’m glad it has a habitat, I feel lucky to glimpse it.” I remember reading about cougar safety in Canada, the guide started with “if you see a cougar, you’re lucky.” Forest Cobras are described as graceful climbers. What the hell, but I can almost stretch my mind to appreciate their agility and delicate scales and the beautiful irony of the amazing devastation that their little mouth can deliver. But I’m not the kind of bicycle traveller who feels most at home deep in the bush in their habitat. Not yet, anyways.
I’m interested in developing that part of myself. The fact that accessing parks, at least their fringes, is basically unavoidable around here helps with that goal. Another thing that helps me is learning that forests and non-parks also have their risks. Most snakebite victims in Africa aren’t traipsing around in nature conservancies when they’re attacked.
That being said, visitors flock to parks because the chances of seeing certain animals are higher. I felt conflicted about cycling through the Ishasha section of Queen Elizabeth National Park, in western Uganda. I still do. The previous day, we’d hired a guide with a van to drive us to Ishasha and see the lions up close. On the drive back, we decided we’d cycle this same road the next day to avoid the highway. Part of me wanted to see animals, part of me didn’t. In the late afternoon after a long and hot bicycle ride we reached Ishasha, announced by its stout fig trees that the lions climb. We were not far from the road leading out of the park when a jeep stopped and warned us of lions up ahead. They even turned around and drove beside us as a precaution, pointing out the three lounging in one fig tree. The rumour is that a lion in a tree is a well-fed— and therefore benign— lion. I tried so hard to appreciate the moment but minutes later my fear brought me to tears.
The park boundaries have gotten appropriately fuzzy for me, and so have the expectations of what a park will be like. I’ve been lucky to visit different types, and even stumbled on one that was perfect for scaredy-cats like me: Kitulo National Park in Tanzania, on a high plateau near the Lake Malawi’s eastern shores. Kitulo is not known for crocodiles or kudu or eagles or gorillas, but orchids. Flowers! And it’s too high up for any mosquitos.
Many of Evan’s struggles are different than mine. He has specific definitions of what makes a day of living on a bicycle “good enough,” some that are great and others that he tries to update. His background is in competitive cycling, and then mountain biking that wasn’t competitive with others but quite competitive with himself. He pushes himself hard, deriving meaning and satisfaction out of this. He had to tape over his bike computer, and eventually got rid of it altogether. He gave it to me, but I couldn’t even be bothered to install it.
We reached Kitulo National Park in the middle of the day a few months ago. Its grasses were strange colours, orange and purple and grey with little meadow flowers. It felt vast and empty and wonderful. The map showed us that just over the hills to our left, the topography plummeted down towards the valley. If we had continued riding we would have been out of the park in an hour or two.
Evan had never stopped cycling before 5 or 6 PM, and it was only noon. Maybe it even scared him a little to stop early. Maybe he worried it would lead to laziness and “getting nowhere,” that we’d set some slacker precedent like in Kyrgyzstan. But he agreed when I suggested we stop to camp, and we spent the next eighteen hours hidden behind the hills perched over the valley below. We watched the clouds move over the mountain ridges and had the rare pleasure of watching almost the entire cycle of the sun. Each of us facing fears that we don’t share, but try to understand.