730km Towing, Kenya

730km Towing Marathon

| Kenya

Several cut up pieces of inner tube holds my bike no more than two feet away from Mike’s rear wheel as we dance around goats, children and pot holes, through villages, across borders, down a long and dusty road and into the heart of 5pm rush hour traffic in Nairobi. We were a duo that couldn’t afford to make a single mistake, because if one went down, the other would be dragged down too with consequences we didn’t dare to imagine. With stupidity not far from our minds, the act of towing me to Nairobi was an adventure.

It started a week before we left Tanga. I heard a noise coming from my engine. As the noise increased, so too did my worries. While trying to attempt to fix one small oil leak from my clutch lever, I discovered an amazing descendant of India from Nairobi. He was visiting his home town because it was the one year anniversary of the passing of his father and being the eldest, it was his duty to come home and be there for the rest of his family.He heard me arriving from a long way off and stood waiting for me at the counter. “You’re not going anywhere with that engine!” He packed up his tools and took me to his workshop at his house.

I was slightly embarrassed as he quickly worked out my muffler wasn’t attached properly and I was missing a washer to help it seal against the engine. With that noise eliminated we could finally hear the other noise which had been creeping up on me. It was a horrendous thumping sound from deep within my engine. At worst, we thought it was going to be the crankshaft bearing. This means getting myself and bike to somewhere where there is :

a) A good mechanic, who

b) Has good tools and

c) might be able to find the parts or get them sent in.

I almost let a tear slide down my cheek at the thought, but I breathed in deeply and sat down to work out my options. Until a few hours ago, I had planned on heading to Rwanda. Now thoughts of returning to Dar Es Salaam or Nairobi or even travelling 4,000km to South Africa came up. All these involved riding my bike and all had hopes of finding a good mechanic. But nothing soothed the fear that was turning my stomach upside down. Arun, the Indian mechanic from Nairobi, suggested I put in an engine treatment which will thicken the oil and hopefully allow me to use the engine for a bit longer. I followed his reasoning and his instructions, deciding that the ride to Dar Es Salaam is probably the safest option. With a heavy stomach and my bags packed Mike and I were ready to hit the road and drive 400km south.

Then Eric, (our host in Tanga) threw a spanner in the works and suggested I ride to Mombasa which is only 180kms and a border crossing away then put the bike on the train to Nairobi. This was brilliant, I would be back in Jungle Junction where Chris (a German trained mechanic) can look at my motorcycle and I don’t have to use the engine as much. This is where I have to pride myself on being a loose planner and able to change plans at a drop of a hat!

Plans do change at a drop of a hat, and within less than 30km out of Tanga, I was feeling physically sick listening to my engine increase in volume at every thump. I stopped my bike in defeat and wondered how to flag down a truck to take me the rest of the way to Mombasa or at least to the border! Mike, after discovering I was no longer behind him, turned around to find me on the side of the road and suggested he tows me to the border and to see if there is a truck heading to Mombasa from there. We had an awkward first start, with me paddling my feet on the asphalt (keep in mind I can barely touch the ground!) trying to relieve the pressure off the return of the stretch within the rubber ties. It hardly made a difference, the elastic reached the end of its tether and I was flung forward. Applying the brakes I got back under control but rolling forward once again! Despite the tension building up in my shoulders due to holding the handle bars straight, I felt happy and relieved. Plugging in my iPod, I sang out loud to myself and to any local that heard me as I rolled past. This happiness was short lived.

In the middle of the night I meet this guy who decided to keep me company and snuggled up with me.

We were stuck behind a matatu (local minivan bus) tentatively going down a hill. Looking forward, my heart sank, after the bottom there was a huge hill. The only way this was going to work was to keep the speed up on the downhill and almost putt out as Mike with his DR650 drags me up the other side. The matatu that we couldn’t attempt to pass was holding us back. Sure enough, on the rise the matatu takes off leaving us hanging its black fumes. Suddenly at the steepest point, I feel slackness on the rope and watch it unravel before my eyes. I’m unable to do anything but watch and wait for complete release. Mike is losing the 200kgs load off his back, and his bike picks up speed and he realizes I am no longer with him.

I’m sitting there feeling ditched, half way up a huge hill. There is no point in trying to tow the bike up the hill, we will just end up breaking the ties once again and there is no way I am going to be able to push the bike up. Starting up the engine once again, the sound makes my hair crawl. I cannot believe I attempted to ride with it sounding like that! At the top of the hill, Mike is sitting there eating a biscuit waiting for me . We re-tied the bikes together and continued until the border. At the border, I was surprised that no one batted an eyelid to the two mzungu (Foreigners) with their bikes tied together.


Diani Beach


Once again the plan changed, we decided that we seem to have nailed the knack of towing and are completely comfortable with being joined together. We decided to continue to Diani Beach (A popular beach resort town), where we will stay at least one night and decide what to do from there.
While relaxing at Diani, I suggested to Mike that we bypass Mombasa and take an inland route through a National Park (where we might be turned back) where we will hit a 50 kilometres stretch of dirt road before we meet back up with the Mombasa – Nairobi Highway.

We weighed up what 50 kilometres of dirt track could mean… rocks, sand, mud (it is the wet season after all) and of course the National Park could be a private road and we won’t be allowed in. We came to the conclusion that it’s far better than tackling the narrow congested streets of Mombasa, a city that has no ring road and you are forced to drive through the heart of the city. We turned off the main road, heading straight for the National Park but we were faced with the biggest hill we have encountered in both our towing history. I wondered how our new towing ropes (made from cut up tires) would stand up to such a strain. They passed the test, but I can see Mike is forced to sit on his tank to stop the front wheel from lifting off the ground. I couldn’t help feeling this was going to turn out to be quite an interesting day.


The snails last moments before Mike stood on it.

As we raced past the tic ket guard for the National Park he placed his hand out to stop us. We both wave back without dreaming of stopping. Thirty kilometres short of where the dirt road was meant to start, we hit four beautiful wheel tracks with a pile of loose sand in between. Mike takes his usual path, as one would if not towing anybody. This forced me to hit the sand mounds and start to losing control. Mike felt the weight shift side to side, he looked in his rear vision mirror and sees me wavering trying to keep control.  Amazingly I gain control and we carry on. I force myself to ride blind directly behind Mike only watching the tail light and ready to pounce on the brakes if need be.


DR650 towing my DR350 on the dirt road through the National Park


Dragging on the brakes, I indicate to Mike I need to stop. Pulling over, I am relieved, it’s exhausting and damn scary. Our new ties, unlike our old ones, won’t break. If one goes down the other one will be forced to follow. I explain my fears from when I nearly lost control of the bike moments before and I also explain that he needs to ride on the far right of the rut (when possible) so I am able to ride on the left hand side of it. Mike agrees, and we set off once again.  From that moment onwards, we worked like a beautiful tango team, dancing our way around the all the obstacles, stopping occasionally to let his bike cool down and to give us a much needed break. We realised how much more energy is required to ride tied together!

At the halfway point (35km into the dirt road) we stopped at a village for a coke-a-cola and a chat with a really interesting local who now owned this supermarket. He helped me talk to a couple of old Masaai women who are intrigued with me but sadly they refused a photo.  Mike and I could feel our energy dropping. Almost at breaking point we finally hit the main road. Sitting in the shade of the street we eat a couple of biscuits before we tackle our next challenge – the Nairobi to Mombasa highway. Scared by the number of speeding trucks pounding down the highway in both directions, I looked over to Mike and suggested we set up the tents here and don’t go any further. But we knew that in 140kms there would be a nice hotel with a hot shower waiting for us. We decided to tackle the monster trucks.

Mike and Shop Owner

Our game plan was to find a truck and stick behind it, no matter how slow it was going. However, this was flawed. The truck we got travelled so slowly, we were forced to pass it on a slight incline. Then driving at 80km/hr we had to hunt another new truck to be our host. We spent two days dodging crazy truck drivers, fearing for our lives as they roared up behind us. I would wave out madly to try and explain in one handed sign language we are two tied together here!  A couple of truck drivers were really nice. They understood us and our need to stick behind them. They would be so courteous and indicated every time there was something on the road they were about to avoid, or put on their hazard lights if they were slowing down for another truck, animal or police. But then, if they stopped we lost them and our search would have to start again.


Mike Preparing to Take Lead Again

Mike and I came up with a rule not to enter Nairobi at peak hour. We made a game plan in case we did end up arriving at the golden hour. We could sit out the three hours of madness in a restaurant and arrive at Jungle Junction in the dark. But we were so close. In fact we had less than 10kms to go! We both just wanted to stop this charade for good and have a cold b eer. We changed our plans for the last time and decided to tackle the crazy unpredictable traffic. It took us several stops to let Mike’s DR650 cool down and a couple of hours to combat the 10 kilometres but we made it. We arrived at Jungle Junction having travelled 730 Kilometres with 10 percent of that on a dirt track, tied together with less than two feet between us and without a single incident!