Juliana Bicycles
 

Human Connections

December 27 — 2019 | Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

The Inaugural K2N Stage Race

Words by: Anka Martin

 

Earlier this summer, I had the chance to ride in the inaugural K2N stage race. This marathon-style race skirts the iconic Mt Kilimanjaro and finishes four days later on the shores of Lake Natron. I’ve been at a loss for words on how to best express this experience in both scope and memories. But, I gave it a try anyway.

Since neither of us were racing for the win, we used every opportunity of interaction to stop, meet, and greet all who we passed on our journey.

It’s always been a dream of mine to visit Tanzania, so when race organiser, Brett Harrison, invited me on this first edition, I jumped at the opportunity. I love being part of first editions or “test” events, when there are still no expectations, things may still be slightly rough around the edges, and everything is an adventure as it unfolds for the very first time. We are the “guinea pigs” of sorts. My fellow Guinea Pig for this adventure was Katie Holden. We have known each other for over 15 years now. Our paths first crossed when we were both travelling the US racing the downhill circuit together. Since then we have been on similar but different paths of adventure and discovery, both of us are now more focused on new experiences and people rather than race results. After all this time Katie and I were finally teaming up and I couldn’t be more ecstatic at the thought of heading out on this trip with her. 

 

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Now neither of us are XC racers and we definitely aren’t marathon racers, but that wasn’t going to stop us from signing up and pushing ourselves to the max. The stats were daunting but doable. Just the right amount of time out on the bike each day, roughly four to six hours. Four days of racing between 50 and 80 km a day, with 600 to 1800 meters of climbing each day. The first day, although one of the shortest, was also the toughest, topping out at 3800 meters on the flanks of the mighty and moody Mt. Kilimanjaro (the highest freestanding mountain in the world). Some steep oxygen deprived hike-a-bike and some rough technical singletrack kept us on our toes. The views made up for the altitude induced headaches, slow going, and the occasional vomit.

Since neither of us were racing for the win, we used every opportunity of interaction to stop, meet, and greet all who we passed on our journey. Not to mention all the intentional and sometimes unintentional wildlife photo stops. Although the race is not held in the famous nearby Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater National Parks, we still encountered plenty of wildlife along the way from giraffes to antelope of all sorts (including the rare Gerenuk and lesser Kudu), zebras to wildebeest, and some even happened upon a cheetah. I try to forget the snake encounter, but there was one of those too. 

We started from the Simba farm lodge, high up in the lush green rainforest jungles and made our way down and across into the dry hot Masaailands which offered its own challenges of heat, sand, and thorns. Our journey ended on the shores of Lake Natron, where we camped under the shadows of Ol Doing Langai, an active volcano, treating our tired and sore bodies to soaks in the natural hot-springs at our camp. Lake Natron itself, is a mineral-rich soda lake with a highly alkaline state which gives it its striking red waters and contributes to the pink color of the hundreds of thousands of flamingos that breed and migrate from here.  It was quite a sight and spectacular way to finish a race. 

Racing K2N as a team, is a special bond that Katie and I will share and cherish forever. It all comes down to our bicycles and our shared love of exploring and experiencing new countries and cultures.

It’s been really hard explaining this experience to people, as there were so many amazing elements to this race and this trip. I fell hopelessly in love with this wild, beautiful corner of the world, with its vibrant colors, warm people, animals, ingenuity, creativity... the list goes on. Racing K2N as a team, is a special bond that Katie and I will share and cherish forever. It all comes down to our bicycles and our shared love of exploring and experiencing new countries and cultures. Despite our limited, ok utter lack of a Swahili vocabulary, where “Jambo” (meaning Hello in Swahili) can only get you so far, we championed on and made it our goal to make that connection with all the people we encountered, be it with laughs, smiles or simple eye contact. Communicating without words. Reaching out.

This may sound weird, but bicycles help break down the barriers and puts people at ease. Whenever I get to a foreign country, there is an immediate acceptance, tolerance, curiosity that draws people towards you when you are on your bike. Being a woman amplifies this even more. Being out there sweating, suffering, laughing, being strong, brave, tough, dirty and full of cuts opens up doors of curiosity and acceptance. Your independence can inspire or resonate, and here it did just that amongst the women and girls. We were greeted with lots of giggles and touching. Being on bikes in the bush you are seen more as equals with those you meet versus the voyeurs passing by in air-conditioned safari jeeps.

During this trip, while we raced the K2N stage race, we had the most incredible experiences with people. Teaching Masaai warriors how to ride bikes, making sure their Shuka’s (cloths that they wear) and their spears didn’t get tangled or wrapped up in the spokes. Taking selfies with fierce young warrior boys. Having concerned elders appear out of nowhere, helping us up after crashing, and cleaning up our bleeding thorn cuts. We shared lunch with shepherd boys mid-stage, giggling with the girls, high five-ing with the kiddies, and of course, drinking ice cold beer in “grocery stores” with the locals along the route.

I will forever be grateful to my bicycle for these encounters, and connections. They are the ones I’ll remember and cherish forever, not the race results where I ended up 10th or 12th or 5th…

We savoured warm Milo (chocolate milk drink) made under the watchful eye of the mighty Kilimanjaro at feed stations. We nicknamed the feed station manager, Mr. Pringle, whose sole focus, it seemed, was force feeding us Pringles at every opportunity. Luckily, there were some other alternatives on offer too and we mostly gorged ourselves daily on the lush avocados. We were honoured to have custom shoes made for us by the local warriors around a fire using motorcycle tyres, nails and a cutting knife. We were gifted beaded earrings from the local tribeswomen - all of these memories were incredibly powerful human connection moments. They were so touching, so heartwarming, and it would have been so different if we had not passed through all these remote places by bike. 

I know this because the following week we spent driving in a Safari jeep to view animals in the world famous Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater National Parks, which has been a dream of mine since I can remember. Although mind-blowing and impressive on a National Geographic scale, everything that I had dreamed and imagined that part of the world to look like, it lacked that simple human connection... that human interaction we had when we passed through villages by bicycle the week prior. In the jeep we were simply tourists, passing by, driving through, looking out at the people who were looking in at us. It didn’t sit well with either Katie or myself and we will forever be grateful to Brett for giving us the opportunity to experience that very intimate, very real connection with the local people, especially the women of the Masaailand. I think we, no, I know we all experienced a very different Tanzania to what the majority of tourists experience when they head over to Tanzania on safari by riding and racing this very unique, one of a kind “race”.

Next time you head somewhere foreign and unfamiliar with your bike, use it as a tool to communicate with people. The connections you make will be real and you will truly experience that country and culture how it’s meant to be experienced first hand. I will forever be grateful to my bicycle for these encounters, and connections. They are the ones I’ll remember and cherish forever, not the race results where I ended up 10th or 12th or 5th - those stats fade away remarkably quickly. Reach out and make the connections.

 

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