TOURING KENYA ON TWO WHEELS Bicycle treks allow visitors to enjoy the country's scenery, wildlife, people up close and at a leisurely pace

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cycling "on the wild side" is a supreme adventure. Warriors and wildebeest, mud huts dotting vast savannahs, and smoldering volcanoes are typical sites during a bicycle safari in Kenya.

The real Africa still exists. Beyond the national parks crowded with tourists and four-wheel-drive vehicles are back roads leading cyclists to some of Kenya's most spectacular wildlife, peoples and scenery.

Imagine pedaling up a steep escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley. Ahead are the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya; below, the blue waters of Lake Nakuru with its thousands of resident flamingos. Zebra and giraffe graze by the roadside. In the distance, a Masai warrior chants as he follows ancient nomadic routes across the plains. Such sights are indeed frequent, though never commonplace, when riding Kenya's back roads.

No where is the panoply of peoples, wildlife and geography more accessible or diverse. Since the pulse of Africa is unhurried, journeying slowly allows one to get in sync with the people and their friendly, relaxed ways. Exposed to the elements, riders experience the sights and sounds of Africa vividly. The senses are released and Kenya can be savored.

If vacationing among the warriors and wildebeest is beginning to sound attractive, consider the organized tour options available. They vary widely in daily mileage covered, equipment needed and costs.

But before selecting a tour, serious introspection is in order. If you enjoy riding a few hours daily, appreciate a support vehicle that carries luggage and tired cyclists, and look forward to gourmet cuisine and hot showers, opt for a luxury bicycle safari. These excursions, costing up to $1,000 per week, combine exercise with convenience and give participants a chance to stay in Kenya's finest lodges.

Although budget organized tours can be the more physically demanding, not all are designed for hard-core cyclists. Costs are trimmed by participants furnishing their own equipment, taking meals in small "hotelis," camping or staying in modest inns and forgoing the sag wagon. These tours cost about $300-$500 per week, including guide. For those who want to get in shape fast and do not mind a bit of roughing it, a budget safari is an excellent choice.

Independent bicycle safaris in Kenya are quite feasible. Consider several safety precautions first: Select dirt or murram-surfaced roads as opposed to paved roads having large potholes. When highways are narrow, navigate on the walking paths off the busy thoroughfares. Consideration for the country's laws and customs especially important for anyone journeying alone. Submit amicably to police checks and never attempt to hurry a official. If desiring to camp in a village, first seek permission from the chief. Finally, never under any circumstances carry drugs.

The recommended bicycle for exploring Kenya is the all-terrain mountain bike. Many roads into scenic areas are unpaved, and )) these models experience fewer punctures and breakdowns. Bicycles can be purchased or rented in Nairobi or Mombasa, Kenya's two largest cities. Accessories like helmets, gloves and Lycra riding suits should be purchased abroad.

Three adventurous and beautiful routes are suggested for first-time visitors to Kenya. The first route leads across the floor of the Rift Valley, the second terminates at Lake Victoria and the third skirts the Indian Ocean coastline. If time allows, a challenging fourth route through northwest Kenya, the Kerio Valley and Cherangani Hills is highly recommended.

The Rift Valley route climbs out of Nairobi. After cyclists grind up a steep, 15-mile escarpment, the world's largest valley sprawls endlessly below. To the north is Lake Navaisha with its fringing banks of feathery-headed papyrus, secluded lagoons and channels. Nearby Hell's Gate National Park beckons riders to undertake what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to freewheel amid large herds of gazelle, giraffe and other non-threatening wild animals.

Lakes Elmenteita, Bogoria and Baringo, like a string of delicate -- pearls, decorate the Rift Valley's floor. More than 500 species of bird and 60 species of mammal inhabit these areas. Near Lake Baringo's shores, crocodiles and hippos keep somnolent cyclists alert.

The second itinerary, equally fascinating, leads travelers west from the Great Rift Valley toward Lake Victoria, Africa's largest .. inland body of water. Lush green tea estates flow endlessly below the Mau Escarpment leading to Kericho, the "tea capital" of Kenya. Further west at the port city of Kisumu, ferries cross to Homa Bay, Rusinga and Mfangano islands, where unspoiled riding trails abound.

Kakamega Forest is a surviving tract of the rain forest that once stretched in a continuous belt from central Africa. Entering this unique woodland on bicycle, one is likely to see blue, redtail and colobus monkeys; rare turacos; and a host of birds not found elsewhere in East Africa.

To the east, the Nandi Hills are reached via zigzagging trails leading into highland sugar care farms. Nandis once were reputed to be the most fierce tribe in the country, although many have become farmers in recent years.

Varying opinions exist about the area's chief zoological mystery, the Nandi bear. Some report recent sightings of the bear, while others contend it is extinct.

The coastal route along the Indian Ocean appeals to any cyclist who enjoys cruising over flatlands propelled by sea breezes. Thirteenth century Swahili ruins, sport-fishing villages, marine parks for snorkeling and diving, and a variety of serene white sand beaches are only gentle rides away. Cyclists are advised to make the 300-mile journey to the coast from Nairobi aboard the "Lunatic Express." This famous train, built in the early 1900s, was considered by many a sheer folly of madmen. Currently it makes two daily runs between Nairobi and Mombasa. Dining car and sleeping compartments are available for the 12-hour journey.

Escaping four-wheel drive vehicles to journey close to the land and people recaptures the spirit of the early safari-seekers. All ages and fitness levels can enjoy the exhilarating freedom of cycling "on the wild side" in Kenya.

If you go . . .

Kenya's equatorial climate is pleasant year-round. The north and the low-lying coast remain hot; the highlands are warm or mild. In late February and March along the coast, high humidity and temperatures above 90 degrees prevail.

Rainy months: April and May on the coast; between March and September in the western highlands; long rains between March and June with short rains in November in Nairobi and the eastern highlands.

Entry requirements: International Vaccination Certificate for yellow fever and cholera, and a valid passport and visa are required for U.S. citizens.

Organized cycling tours: Tours currently available can last several hours or weeks. Some are budget-conscious; others are luxurious. A few cater to highly skilled cyclists, but most are geared to the less skilled. Look for more organized trips in recent issues of magazines focusing on active travel.

*Paradise Bicycle Tours Inc. specializes in 15-day camping and luxury tours, and three- to five-day outings with vehicle support. Bicycles, helmets and gloves furnished. Information: P.O. Box 1726, Evergreen, Colo. 80439; telephone (303) 670-1842.

*International Bicycle Fund offers budget 14- to 21-day tours. No vehicle support or equipment furnished. Information: 4247 135th Place S.E., Bellevue, Wash. 98006; (206) 746-1028.

*Bike Treks c/o Let's Go Travel features two-and seven-day mountain bike tours. Camping only; bicycles are available or cyclists can use their own. Information: P.O. Box 60342, Nairobi, Kenya; telephone 29539/29540; fax 336890.

*Gametrackers (K) Ltd. offers three-day mountain bike adventures. Bicycles furnished and individualized tours are arranged on request. Information: P.O. Box 62042, Nairobi, Kenya; telephone 338927/22703; after 5:30 p.m. 504281; fax 330903.

*Flamboyant Bike Hire and Rides features three-hour evening rides along the coast or Shimba Hills. Cycling safaris arranged on request. Information: P.O. Box 69, Ukunda, Kenya; telephone 2441 (Diani Beach), 485807 (Mombasa).

These are among the shops where one can buy a bicycle in Nairobi:

*Inder Lakhmidar, Tom Mboya Street; telephone 23955. English and Taiwan mountain bicycles, 12-15 speeds. Cost ranges from $300 to 800.

*Kenya Cycle Mart Ltd., Moi Avenue; telephone 23417. English touring bicycles, 3-12 speeds. Cost ranges from $400 to $850.

Nairobi has no rental shops; there are better options along the coast.

*Flamboyant Bike Hire and Rides, Diani Beach; telephone 2441. Mountain bicycles go for about $100 a week.

*Sports Centre, Diani Beach. Single-speed bicycles at about $20 a week.

*Silver Sands Campground, Malindi. Single-speed bicycles by the hour, day or week.

--Kathleen Bennett

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