When Ben Haggai Onyango turned 40, he decided to gift himself a unique thing, a ride across nine African countries: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.
“I wanted to celebrate my birthday the best way I knew how —cycling. And, as a regular cyclist, I also felt this challenge would help me promote road safety. My trip across East and partly South Africa was for those two main reasons,” he says.
Despite having prepared, when the D-Day of starting the 7,000-kilometre journey reached, anxiety kicked in.
“I had prepared well but this was a different trip, my first time cycling solo with no bike-packing experience. So I packed essentials from bicycle accessories and spare parts in case of breakdown, clothes, snacks, a sleeping bag, toiletries…but I felt confused,” he says.
He left Kenya on June 16, 2023, on a hybrid bicycle also known as cross-Brand TDS.
“It was a birthday gift from my wife. She bought it at Infinity Baiskeli for around Sh35,000,” he says.
He started with long rides during the day, got really tired and cycled in unfriendly weather.
“I would do 190km on a good weekend,” he said. For context, Nairobi to Naivasha is about 90km and to Thika from Nairobi is about 50km.
Ben is a solo rider, so this trip was not lonely. He also cycles to work when he is in Nairobi, so he is comfortable on high-traffic roads where trucks roar by as he rides.
But the first three days on this audacious 7,000km journey served as the litmus test.
“I tested my endurance a lot in those three days. June was a cold month and in some places, it was raining. I kept telling myself that I had a journey ahead of me and it had to be done,” he says.
What helped him is that he had muscle memories.
“The muscles remember what they are capable of. Your body blends with routine and you don’t struggle much as you build on distance especially. Once you start, you must keep the pedal going. Unless there is a good reason not to ride, stay on the road,” he says.
But even the best in the game have bad days. He almost quit twice. The first time, it was impossible to stop because he was in the middle of Manangara National Park in Zimbabwe and had done 40km across the escarpment that cuts across the forest.
“When I hit kilometre 40, I got so fatigued I stopped by the road and stopped a truck to ask for assistance. The driver told me that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t help me as he is not authorised to carry passengers. I engaged the lowest gear, and I was basically spinning. At kilometre 62, I started seeing houses and that gave me hope. At this point, the meal he had at 7am was completely burned. I was famished,” Ben narrates.
The second time he almost quit was when he was in the middle of Rungwa Game Reserve in Tanzania.
“My derailleur hanger had just broken with about 180km still ahead of me. I was cycling at a single speed. This was particularly emotionally tasking. I had moments when I asked myself why I was doing this. To what end?,”he says.
A few kilometres down, he met some boys on their bicycles. They taught him how to cycle on gravel. He believes that is the lesson he needed, and the circumstances may have been as such to allow him to take the lesson.
There have been other challenges on the road. By the time he got to Moshi in Tanzania, he had repaired 40 punctures. Zambia takes the crown for this trouble as he had the most punctures in the country. He attributes this to the rough terrain he encountered while he cycled there. Forty could be symbolic. Perhaps the universe was saying he has paid his dues and he has closed the loop.
“While entering Tanzania from Burundi, Google Maps suggested that I go through Lake Tanganyika, which is impossible. I had to look for an alternative route which cost me four extra days and an elevation of 2,192 metres between Kasumulu and Mbeya, the highest I have achieved in my entire journey,” says Ben, who is a consultant with a team that is able to work when he is not working.
It was between Bujumbura and Matana that he achieved the second-highest elevation of 2,137 metres.
Long-distance cycling craze
Long-distance cycling has become a craze, especially among thrill-seeking Kenyans. Every single weekend, many Kenyans easily do rides of up to 100 km, while others plan for long trips to places like Mecca, combining adventure and a cause.
So, how much preparation goes into these cycling trips?
“Money is a factor, but it is not a limitation. I planned my journey with Sh180,000. This was to take care of my bicycle repairs, accommodation whenever necessary, food and other needs,” he says, adding that throughout his journey his friends and other well-wishers supported him by sending him money, offering accommodation in different countries, and advising on the best routes.
He made non-monetary preparations too. He installed extra water cages on the bicycle to make them five, therefore he had about four litres of water every time he set out for his journey.
He also had a saddle bag for tools, a frame bag to carry power banks, sanitiser and an emergency toolkit.
“I installed a front carrier to balance the weights of the luggage I was carrying (which was about 30kg to 40kg). I also carried an extra tube and two sets of tyres that are built for endurance,” he says.
Ben describes himself as a physically active person. As an adrenaline junkie, he started as a runner, but was slowed down by a toe surgery and upon doctors’ advice, he elected to take on another physical activity that would not put so much pressure on his foot.
“I still would have found myself in cycling even if things hadn’t turned out the way they did. I loved cycling as a boy and when it became impossible to run anymore, cycling became the most natural alternative. Outside those long rides, I ride for other reasons: to remain fiddle-fit and to feel good, nice and easy,” he says.
Using a bicycle to cross nine countries also meant Ben had to follow different protocols on the border. These included having all necessary vaccinations.
Then there was his family. He also sat down with his wife and kept mentioning to his young children that he would be gone for some time.
“I kept in touch with them and my siblings while on the road. I also communicated with friends who helped me with logistical plans,” he says.
He would take some days off to rest too.
“I had recovery times on the journey. I had days I just rested to allow my body to regain energy. That way I will not need an extended recovery time when I get back to Kenya,” he says.
Now that he is back, does he feel like he achieved his mission?
“I feel fulfilled. I have gone through all the nine countries I set out to do. I have had good days and bad days. But I am happy that I am coming to the end in one piece. I am happy I chose this path. To greater challenges now.”
He adds, “Now that I have done nine countries, I will keep discovering new thrills on the bike. Life has just started at 40 years, this means I would love to see other people cycle so that they can be healthy and confident on the roads.”
If there is anything the journey has taught him, it is self-awareness. “I have seen how much I can stretch. I am more aware of my strength. I know my limits and most of all, have learned that I am at my strongest when I am at my lowest. I have also learned that not all shortcuts are good.”