John Nasio: My 5,000km bike ride to South Africa and lessons I picked
This was a journey of discovery, more than anything else. It was a journey of finding myself, more than exploring the scenery. It was more of challenging my limits and less of enjoyment. When I embarked on the journey to South Africa (SA), it was largely to overcome my fears and to find myself.
This was an arduous decision but a time had come when I had to shed my childhood fears. This, if successful, was going to be a great testament that I could overcome all if I immersed myself in it. It would have been convenient to ride along with someone else or a group of riders. There were more advantages of having the trip with someone else, but it would have come with extra costs.
I longed to feel and encounter it regardless of the challenges that could have come along the way. I desired to see how I would overcome all the challenges that I might stumble upon, of course by myself. This was the only way to prepare me for maybe something bigger in future. It was more about challenging myself, really.
It was the culmination of a journey to finding myself that began three years ago. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I started hiking. With time, I began to realise that I had a passion for the outdoors. These were the times I thought about riding to SA to overcome my fears.
I started by hiking all the way to Mt Kenya. Then Mt Kilimanjaro. And, before I knew it, I was into group camping. It birthed in me the desire to keep exploring and finding myself.
Phobia for motorbikes
In the shenanigans, I found the courage that I could really ride a motorbike to a place far away in a quest to overcome my fears. I had a phobia for motorbikes until three years ago. When the country was in lockdown, I learnt how to ride a motorbike. This was my first attempt at challenging myself.
A few days later, I bought my first motorbike. It was a secondhand 150cc-engine motorbike. With every ride, I realised that it was not as bad as I thought it would be. Then the challenge to partake in a long ride flew past my mind.
And I kept updating my bucket list. I yearned to go to the farthest corner of Africa, down south, to perhaps Cape Town. But there was something that I was really struggling with — fear.
For one, I would say, I’m an introvert. I am not an outgoing person who will, you know, meet people and freely talk to them. I am the kind of person who, when in a group of peers, will be listening and contributing less and getting excited to hear what other people are talking about.
A lot of people I talked to about the trip, including my mum, termed it crazy, absurd and an impossibility. But the more I would hear people telling me that it was close to impossible, the more I wanted to do it.
I have been to Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda before. But that was on a bus and in the company of other passengers. And, relatively, it was a shorter trip than the journey I was making to SA. I was going to be alone, on a motorbike. By the thought of that, I could feel the fear engulfing me tenfold. It needed a lot of convincing and soul-searching to embark on the trip.
After planning for over two years for this kind of trip, saving and even buying a motorbike for that purpose, I still felt inadequately prepared psychologically.
I remember that before I embarked on this trip to South Africa, I did outdoor camping for two nights just to gauge myself and my dexterity and whether I was ready to endure the uncertainties ahead of the journey to finding myself. It turned out I had stashed a lot of things for the camping. But it occurred to me that having so much might even risk getting some of the stuff getting stolen along the way.
Then I made the decision. I would ride 5584 kilometres to SA to overcome my fears. Riding from the coastal town of Malindi in Kenya, my home, and riding all the way to Cape Town, South Africa, was both crazy and an overstretch.
The Initial budget for the entire trip was about Sh250,000. I topped it to 450,000 to cater for any miscellaneous expenses and fees along the way. I learnt that I needed some money to take care of taxes and permits in some countries. I knew I needed to pay the temporary import permit and insurance fees for the bike. I needed to put aside money for fuel as well.
KTM 390 Adventure
When I finally ignited my KTM 390 Adventure bike of 373cc engine capacity, I knew I was not turning back. I had hoped that I would gain courage on the go. I decided to go through East African countries – Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi – to gather momentum as I raced towards South Africa through Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Riding through Uganda before detouring to Rwanda and Burundi and Tanzania, was quite the adventure. But the fear I felt before crossing the Kenya-Uganda border was immense.
I arrived at the border town of Busia early enough to cross over. But I chose to sleep on the Kenyan side. I was still battling with the decision of whether to continue with the trip or give up on it altogether.
The night at the Busia border point, I remember, was full of soul-searching; the longest night I ever had. I was asking myself whether I was really sure I wanted to continue with the trip.
The thought of crossing was tough. I reminded myself that there was no turning back once I crossed over. When I did, I knew I was prepared for cruising border after border, town after town, until I got to South Africa.
The first town that I visited after crossing to Uganda was Jinja, where I booked an accommodation facility. I had parked my bike outside the premises but when it got dark, I was advised to take it inside. We had to carry the over 200-kilo bike up the stairs.
The compound had a perimeter wall and a gate manned by a guard. But then they were telling me we had to carry the bike and put it inside for security reasons. It really freaked me out and got me thinking about losing the bike. There was this lingering fear that someone would break into the compound and steal the bike. That was my first night outside Kenya. Alone.
I stayed in Uganda for three days. Since I didn’t want to bother the facility’s attendants to help me get the bike upstairs every evening, I preferred to let it stay indoors as I roamed the streets of Jinja.
In Tanzania, I wasn’t prepared to ride across Katavi Forest, a 250-kilometre stretch of gravel road. It was a lonely, deserted long ride. There were neither people nor cars.
As I was preparing to cross the Tanzanian border from Burundi, I met this truck driver who, upon learning that I intended to ride all the way to South Africa, he asked me, ‘Are you going to go through this particular route that goes through the forest?’
He told me the road zigzags across the forest and goes through the Katavi National Park. I was told that I needed to protect myself. He told me that I needed to carry a machete or pepper spray because there had been several incidents of people being robbed in that forest. I carried none. I was told that people sometimes cut trees and just lay them on the road, barricading the road and then robbing the motorists.
The plan was for me to enjoy. It was supposed to be an adventure. And now I was being told to carry a weapon that I could use against someone because I wanted to protect myself. That thought really hit me so hard and I was asking myself: do I want to keep going on this trip?
I talked to my wife about it and she too was scared. I told her that I would never wish to harm anyone. I prayed about it and decided that I was going to ride through it.
Fortunately, when I crossed it was safe. Only that it was raining heavily with thunderstorms and lightning. It was so scary. I mean, having grown up on the Coast, we do not encounter thunderstorms even during rain. So being in a forest all alone and having to endure the thunderstorms and the lightning was a very scary experience.
I had just ridden 60 kilometres into the forest when the rain started. I couldn’t hide under the trees as it is not safe. Standing by the road wouldn’t make any sense either, and so I kept going.
Genocide memorial site
At some point, I got into a pothole whose depth I misjudged. It was really deep and I fell off the bike. When I got down, there was something telling me: are you sure you want to keep going? But I told myself that there was no turning back.
I looked at the GPS device I had. It indicated that I had 180 kilometres to my destination in the terribly bad weather. But I had to keep going. The fear that seemed to be urging me to give up halfway was the very fear I was riding this far away from home to overcome.
In Rwanda, I visited several places including the genocide memorial site. I loved the place.
I was to leave on a Sunday morning. Before I did, I powered on the GPS device which draws power from the bike. And, on this day, I forgot to switch it off and it drained the battery. I didn’t realise. Then came the moment to leave.
I turned on the ignition key but the bike wasn’t starting. Apparently, the GPS device had consumed all the power from the bike’s battery while I was just trying to check out the distance and the direction to my next destination.
I was ready to leave, having checked out of the hostel. But the bike couldn’t start. That was the first major bike problem that I encountered. The bike then was only one month old. I bought it sometime in January. This was February and I was wondering what had happened to it. I totally didn’t have a clue.
I would then see on the TFT screen of the bike that the battery power was 11 volts. Given it was a 12-volt battery, which was the moment I figured out that the battery was drained and I needed to recharge it. Being a Sunday, it was really hard to find a place where I could recharge the battery.
By the time I was done with the battery, it was already past midday. I decided to postpone the trip and travel the next day.
I left Zambia for Zimbabwe via the Victoria Falls border. The road to Boulevard was really bad. The stretch is really good in its initial stages before it gets really bad. The good gave way to the bad really soon and abruptly. At a speed of 80km/h, I encountered a pothole that I couldn’t just escape.
I hit it and thought the bike was okay. I hadn’t known I had bent the rim of the front tyre. It was only some kilometres ahead that I realised the bike wasn’t stable. I stopped and realised that I didn’t have pressure on the front tyre.
From Zimbabwe all the way to South Africa, I had the challenge of feeling and filling pressure every morning before the ride. By the end of every day, the tyre pressure would’ve gone down. It was more like having a slow kind of puncture daily.
And along the way, I kept looking for places where they could fix the rim. There was none all the way to Pretoria, South Africa. That’s where it was fixed. It had five other cracks that I hadn’t seen. The mechanic told me that it is a really huge risk and advised me to buy another ring.
I decided to ride all the way to Johannesburg and make arrangements to ferry the bike back to Kenya from there. I then flew to Cape Town from Johannesburg. My bike ride was supposed to end in Cape Town but I had to halt it in Johannesburg.
From Cape Town, I flew back to Kenya to be with my family over Easter. I had hoped to have my family with me in Cape Town but the budget couldn’t allow it.
The bike will be coming to Kenya as luggage. It took me seven weeks to get to my destination. When I was leaving Kenya, I took the bike for service.
It’s a KTM bike, so I took it to the KTM service centre in Nairobi. Even though it wasn’t due for service. I was convinced it was the best thing to do given the journey ahead.
I had an air filter, a lubricant for the chain, a degreaser for the chain, a liquid coolant for the engine, a spare air filter and tyre repair tools.
My rural home
This was the first longest trip I made on a bike. The other longest trip I had done before was riding from Malindi to my rural home in western Kenya.
When I got to Cape Town, I was asking myself: so, what next? I don’t have another destination right away. However, I would love to ride to northern Africa.
I used an East African passport. I didn’t have any need for a visa to move across all eight countries.
I am happy to have reached my destination despite having fallen in the mud with the bike and having got completely drenched in the rain.
I carried a number of stuff from South Africa as a souvenir, particularly in Cape Town. I have carried some fridge magnets. I will stick them in the fridge and they will just always remind me of my trip to Cape Town.
I have bought a few tee shirts from South Africa for my daughter. What fascinated me most about Cape Town, apart from the Table Mountains, was seeing penguins. I have only been seeing them in movies. My five-year-old daughter loves animated movies. When I came into contact with the penguins at Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, I was overwhelmingly excited.
I wished that my daughter was there.
I bought a “glass globe” that has penguins. It has three penguins — a father, a mother, and I think, a baby penguin. That’s the best souvenir that I got for my family. And, interestingly, it’s just three penguins: a daddy, mummy and baby. And we are a family of three.
The biggest lesson that I have carried with me from the adventure was endurance. When I got to South Africa, the reception of this guest house where I was to spend had this portrait of Nelson Mandela with his quote “It always seems impossible until it is done” on it. And it spoke so intimately to me.
I have read that quote before. But on this particular day when I saw it, it hit me so hard because it actually spoke to me about this entire trip. It had looked impossible prior.
And I remembered when I was in Busia before crossing, and I was asking myself whether I was ready for the trip. I remembered when I was in the forest getting rained on and getting freaked out by the thunderstorms and all that and asking myself whether I would really make it.
I remembered when I was on the road, riding on the bent front rim of the tyre that didn’t have pressure and asking myself: why do I have to keep doing this? And when I came into contact with this phrase that it always looks impossible until it is done, I felt accomplished. It spoke to me more intimately that I could really do anything I wanted so long as I put in the work.
It was a journey of labour and great endurance. But one that wouldn’t have been possible without a supportive wife.
Besides her prayers and encouragement, she also bought me a helmet. She immensely supported my dream. And she agreed to remain behind to take care of our beautiful daughter. I don’t take that for granted.