That was Then, This is Now; a Tribute to Lava Rock Camp
After a few years away, Randy returned to Northern Kenya as this year’s tour leader. Here is his tribute to that strange and special place.
Not just a tribute to the campsite itself but also to the TDA alumni, the baboon assed cyclists who have cranked it out across the Dida Galgalu desert. The route for the Tour d’Afrique is constantly evolving, however for more than a decade Lava Rock Camp has been the destination of the second cycling stage in Kenya. The volcanic landscape, for which the meltdown madness section is named, is ruthless terrain for cyclists. The porous rocks will destroy tires and should you conduct a strategic dismount it’s like falling on a cheese grater. As I’ve said many times in the past, “keep the rubber side down”. The road is never the same. It’s surface is constantly in a state of flux between maintenance (not very often), degradation from vehicles and the effects of the annual rains. Most of the time there are just rutted tire tracks meandering through the desert, with large mounds of loose lava rocks lining the road’s shoulders. While cycling through one of these ruts you will find patches of loose rock, sand, dust and corrugation or any combination of all these elements simultaneously. Between Moyale and Marsabit are the shortest cycling stages of the entire tour and this is due to the abusive bone jarring, ass pounding conditions our riders must endure. There are three points of contact between a cyclist and their stead; the hands the feet and the arse. All three can suffer from bruising, blistering and permanent nerve damage as a result of this relentless terrain. But it’s not just the road surface. While travelling through this landscape there is no reprieve from the elements. The sun bakes everyone while the wind carries sand at velocities that will remove paint from your bike frame. In addition to the roads and weather there are no opportunities to restock any food or water provisions during the three days it takes to traverse this desolate wasteland.
In 2004, my first crossing of the Dida Galgalu, I remember seeing one tree close to the side of the road. I could see it from miles away and it seemed to be the only sign of life. Desperate for some refuge from the blistering sun I stopped for a rest in the shade. Upon my arrival I found two of my cycling comrades already there, but there was only enough shade for two. The first to arrive there graciously relinquished his portion of the tree’s shadow and continued off into the desert.
In 2005 I took a different approach. On this riding stage the lunch truck sits on the saddle between two small peaks and the descent from the Col is the entrance into the lava rock desert. I helped set up lunch then took my camera and water and headed out by foot. I told everyone that i was going to photograph them and that I needed to break in my hiking boots before my attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, but the truth was that there was no way in hell I would subject myself to riding across that forsaken landscape again. EFI will make you do stupid things.
In 2006, the vehicles were struggling more than the cyclists. Punctures and broken spring blades drastically delayed our mechanical support. I found myself driving the bakkie in a race against our fastest riders. Getting to camp ahead of them and not destroying the truck in the process was a monumental challenge in itself. I only arrived at camp 10 minutes before them. I constructed a makeshift shelter by tying my tent fly to the side of the 4×4 and the front runners had to lay underneath it for more than two hours while we waited for the kitchen truck to arrive.
2009 was probably the most bizarre experience, there were some ominous clouds looming on the horizon, but I just assumed that rain in this parched corner of the planet was an impossibility. While delivering the rider meeting I was interrupted by crack of thunder, and within 30 seconds the most torrential rainstorm unleashed its fury upon us. The desiccated ground was unprepared for such a deluge. Tents were flooded, jerry cans and cooler boxes were floating out of the kitchen. Some cyclists ran for shelter, others attempted to batten down the hatches on their tents, a few decided to embrace the storm, got naked and had the most magnificent shower ever.
But times are changing and development persists. This year we had a different experience; Roadworks! Chinese contractors are paving northern Kenya. Although there were tough sections of road, there were also sections where it had been grated. There were even a few 20km stretches of pristine blacktop. The construction site provided us with enough water to provide our clients with bucket showers to remove their bodily dirt stains. But to make up for the loss of challenge the higher powers at be decided to hit us with a dust storm and gale force winds.
My fear is that next year the entire road from Moyale to Marsabit will be paved which means the schedule will likely adjust to ride this section in two stages instead of three. This adjustment will eliminate Lava Rock Camp from the tour. It’s bizarre to gain a feeling of nostalgia when your odometer tells you that you have arrived at your destination and you look to your left to see the circles created by our cycling predecessors who have moved the rocks to pitch tents and park vehicles. From this day forward, future Friques will just whiz past on rigid bikes with pizza cutters for tires enjoying the immaculate pavement with complete disregard for what the pioneering riders had to endure. Only those who have arrived at this campsite by bike will ever understand the tribulations of this riding stage. I feel like I should ask for a moment of silence to commemorate this incredible destination where no one except for our riders and a couple local goat herders would ever spend the night.
After spending an entire month grinding through the chaos and pandemonium that is Ethiopia, Kenya has provided a new flavor that the riders had been longing for. We are now learning Swahili, meeting the people of the Massai tribe, enjoying nyama choma with ugali and washing it down with warm tusker. Meltdown madness is an exciting section; the singing well camp in southern Ethiopia, the volatile region of inter-tribal conflict near Moyale, the Dida Galgalu desert, a rest day atop the Marsabit volcano, night time serenades from hyenas, amazing cultural exchange at the orphan school in Laisamis, the three most lush campsites as we approach Nairobi, crossing of the equator (EQUATOR PARTY!), the BBQ at Savage Wilderness Camp and now we are just one riding day away from the Tanzanian border where we will have the opportunity to visit the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater which is truly the quintessential African wildlife viewing experience.