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Victoria Cycle Challenge – Will Whitaker

Well, we did it. 280(ish)kms across the unpredictable Kenyan terrain, from the (almost) flat planes of the Maasai Mara to the well-paved shores of Lake Victoria. And while the journey may have been net downhill - a fact that provided little solace halfway up day two's mountain - I've come out the other end feeling a lot fitter and a little fatter, no doubt due to the substantial portions provided by our Maasai chef, Joseph. For someone who doesn't eat anything but meat, he sure knew his way around a vegetarian menu.   

Preparing ourselves at Crocodile Camp Masai Mara

Our first casualty came before the start line, when one of our group of four showed up with a chest infection. But don't worry, we stuck to the pirate's code, not even hesitating before leaving him behind to relax and recover at the wonderful Wildebeest eco camp. At the time I may have been a little envious, my stomach upset by nerves and the endless jiggling of Kenyan roads (otherwise known as a 'free massage'). Anyway, however he spent his time did the trick, and he managed to catch up just in time for day 3's downhills.

The first day was the easy one, just long enough to make me thankful for my padded shorts while also being farther than I'd ever cycled in one sitting (a word that still makes me twinge). It provided a nice taster for things to come. The roads were rocky, my palms hurt from the outset, and it got really, stupidly hot. But we also saw glimpses of gazelle, heard the fascinated cries of the local children (Mzungu! Mzungu!) and tasted a well-earned beer from a Maasai bar ('This is called the hodi dance' 'This is called the floss!'). I was knackered by the end, resenting everything around me for my being there. But then our guide, John, told us he'd seen enough. We were gunna make it.

Giraffe crossing

Although we set off at 7:05 (sorry John), we still didn't reach the beast until the sun really got itself together, melting us faster than we could chug our GrifAid filtered water. Every two pedals forward meant one back as the bike's hefty tyres skidded on the loose stones of the endless winding mountain track ('that next corner *has* to be the top'). After conquering that, I barely remember the slight undulations of the plateau, winding through Acacia trees and piki pikis down ever more rural tracks.

I mentioned the mountain on day two? Yeah, it was a big one. It spent the morning jeering at us from the horizon as we made our way passed the giraffes and wildebeest of the Mara, morphing from a vague blue outline to a sharp sheer sheet of rock. What I do remember is our arrival at camp no.3, nestled in the deep wilderness, leaning over the plateau's edge above hundreds of miles of Kenyan and Tanzanian plains.

I'll never forget that view. 

The trouble with describing a view is that you, the reader, will compare it to your own experience. Maybe I'd tell you that it was the best view I'll ever see (it was), then perhaps you'll think of the best view you've ever seen, nodding along with understanding. However, trust me when I say, yours falls short (unless you're an astronaut, you lucky sod). It was indescribable, but there is no harm trying. Savannah stretched the horizons, broken only by a weave of lush greenery, marking the path of the Mara river. We spent the afternoon watching a herd of wildebeest eat their way across this endless grassland, interrupted by the next elephant spotting or a vulture riding the thermals below us. The perfect backdrop for our well-earned rest.

A photo could never do this view justice

Watching the sun rise

My companions disagree, but for me, day 3 was the hardest. It was certainly the longest, bringing us out of Maasai-land into more populated areas. And while we ended lower than we started, there were enough downs to allow some serious ups. Plus there were no zebra crossing (lol) the road to raise our spirits. Not to mention the roads themselves! My stigmata-esque bruised palms and broader shoulders can attest to the constant impacts of the stone roads. We passed some great stuff in the first half of that day, but I was mostly too busy concentrating on avoiding the next rock to absorb it all. Happy does not come close to describe the relief I felt when we hit tarmac for the first time since we began.

We had plenty of support to keep us going!

We were warned before the fourth day that it would not be the same. The hills would seem higher and the sun would seem hotter as our bodies protested against another day of exercise. I'm not sure if it was the severity of John's tone or my respect for his warnings, but I ended up expecting the worst. As a result, the day wasn't as bad as i thought it would be. Sure, we started with an 8km rise, but it was tarmac, and we were surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Migori city (so much bustle).  The real excitement came when we hit sugarcane country, and we had our first fall. Steve, so recently recovered from a chest infection, smashed up his ribs falling from his bike after having a little too much fun coming downhill. Poor guy then fell again an hour later, still not quite with it from the shock of the first fall. The injury was bad enough that he had to pull out of the last day. I did feel sorry for him, but honestly I was mainly glad that it hadn't happened to me!

Racing the motorcycles up the hills.

The last day was going great, we'd smashed a tough uphill and were rewarded with a steep-but-fun track akin to downhill mountain biking. We even plucked some fresh guava from the roadside, normally reserved for the local baboons. Soon after we hit tarmac again, just in time for the low-altitude heat to really kick it. Caught between the sun and the furnace of the road, we rolled down the lakeside road, invigorated by the sight of the water, sure that we were almost done. But the road went on and on, and it just kept on getting hotter. I'll stop whining, but did I mention the headwind? It sucked.

This all made the final arrival all the sweeter. We were greeted at Mercy school by the child-curiosity we had grown to expect. But this time we weren't just cycling past, frantically waving while navigating the uneven terrain. We met the teachers then Jess was chosen to cut the ribbon that opens the latest classroom funded by COCO. Once inside, the teachers made speeches and the kids put on amusing performances, my favourite showing the usual interaction with the Kenyan police (mostly they just stop people for a chat).

Jess opening the new classroom at Mercy Primary.

 I sat closest to the children, making sure to a make a few friends while the performances went on around us (smiles and fist bumps go a long way). The closest kids spent most the time trying muster the courage to touch my strange mzungu legs. After the performance, we went to see the foundation where the next classroom would be built, which our fundraising would contribute to. Beside it lay the regular classrooms, corrugated iron hanging from old wooden frames. I could barely stand to stay inside for a few minutes, ovens baking the student inside in the afternoon sun. Meeting the kids was both fantastic and tragic, providing personal proof of the benefits of COCO's work. I wish I could gift Mercy the funds to replace all eight of the old classrooms.

Outside the existing classrooms.

Riding in a car for the first time in a week, I realised that while this Victoria Cycle Challenge was difficult in places, it was well paced, with ample opportunity for photo breaks to catch your breath. With the abundance of happy-faced photos, the real challenge was making this not look like a holiday. From the incredible proximity with the wildlife to the indescribable vistas, from the countless smiles of the friendly locals to the unique way of absorbing a foreign land, this journey has been unforgettable. I've a lot to thank COCO for, though I hope my fundraising will help with that! Its only been a couple of days since we reached the lake and I can already say with certainty that I'll be back.

Maybe I'll see you there.

For more information or to register your interest, click here.

Joseph, Silvester and John of Willetts Safaris enjoying a well earned rest after looking after us so well all week. Thank you for an incredible challenge!

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