Kimbia is a Swahili word, meaning “to run”, and what better place could there be to run than the home country of dominant marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge?
Kimbia Kenya is a bit different from other events: it is a 9 day all-inclusive trail running experience, arranged as a partnership between French travel company, Exaequo Voyages, and France-Kenya Sport Solidarity. Participants run 10kms (short course) or 20kms (long course) over each of 5 stages, and are also provided unique opportunities to partner with local schools and communities to provide assistance and increased cross-cultural understanding. It is family-friendly event; this year there were 3 children taking part (including my 12yr old daughter) and another 2 younger children who did not run but were completely welcomed in the group.
As an all-inclusive event, the quoted price is ex-Paris and includes flights to Kenya. However, you can contact Exaequo and arrange to join in Nairobi (as I did) – they were kind enough to arrange transfers for me as well. What this means is that the organisation is extremely simple – you get there and everything is arranged. So while it is a packed program, it is definitely a holiday as well.
In Nairobi we literally climbed into the massive trucks that were our transport for the week, and headed north-west to our first basecamp, Lake Elementaita. The camp overlooks the lake and we headed out for a nature walk with a local Maasai who explained the plants and their traditional uses.
Stage 1 headed out from the camp, through cattle and zebra herds and around the Lake itself. At each stage the short distance runners started from the half-way point and we were treated to the most scenic sections. I went into this event recovering from a broken foot, and so I walked stage 1, but was never really alone, as from approximately the 6km mark the 20km runners started to come through from behind me. The surface was red dirt trail, and then slightly sandy along the lake, with plenty to see. Flamingos on the lake, volcanic hotsprings in full use for community bathing, more zebra and storks and pelicans. An ascent to the finishline at the viewpoint across the lake was enough to get the heart pumping in higher altitude than I am used to. Following showers and lunch we headed out to Nakuru National Park, where we were lucky to see about nine white rhino as well as a hyena, warthog, giraffes and buffalo.
Stage 2 is the school stage and was definitely the most fun. The route goes through a number of villages and past schools, where the students lined the route and cheered as you passed. It was probably the closest I will ever get to celebrity status as I was literally mobbed by children seeking “high 5s”, with huge smiles, and running alongside me for so long that I was concerned that they should be back at school! The stage passed just so quickly, even though in some places I was stopped for ages taking photos with every group! Just over a km from the end each runner was “adopted” by two students, who ran holding our hands all the way to the finish at their school. But the stage was not over at the finish line. Hundreds of children were ready for more high fives, short conversations in English and an absolute fascination with my hiking poles…. The finish is at one of the schools supported by the program and we were given tours of the classrooms before donating the school supplies we had brought from home. In the afternoon we visited another local school. We went from classroom to classroom, sharing with the kids. With limited English on their part and one word of Swahili on mine, we focused our discussion on favourite foods, types of pets and favourite subjects at school. At both these visits with the younger children (ages 3-12), they were fascinated with my pale skin and hair. I was touched, pinched, my hair ruffled…it was actually quite confronting at times; but in this remote area non-black people are very uncommon and they were curious.
Stage 3 was by far the hardest stage. I always find it is – something about a 3rd day in a row – but this one was brutal for me. The course rose as high as 2600m (the highest point in Australia is 2228m), and the temperature to 35 degrees Celsius with no shade. We climbed up the ridge and to the village at the top where we finished at a secondary school supported by the program. The afternoon program was fascinating.
While those with energy to burn took on the local soccer team, I was “adopted” by a bunch of final year girls who wanted to share stories. Over a couple of hours I learned about their home lives, their career aspirations and their challenges, and answered the most unpredictable range of questions about my life (like “would I let my teenage daughter stay overnight at a boy’s house?”).
A rest day followed and was greatly appreciated. We headed to a Maasai community that does not usually receive visitors. I really appreciated this aspect of the program, as I had read a lot about “tourist Maasai visits” that had communities dressing up for a Disney version of their lives in order to generate income. This community had made a special effort for us, but was not being other than themselves. A mix of tradition and the latest technology, traditional and western-style clothing, dance and song as welcome, not as performance. We separated into men and women, and I learned from a kind and open mother-of-four, Jacqui, who shared her home and lifestyle with us. We came with gifts of sugar, flour and cooking oil for the families, as well as school supplies for the school principal to distribute. The women produce elaborate beadwork to be sold at the markets for cash to buy clothes and school uniforms; Jacqui said they had not had any visitors to their village in a long time. Between our group, I think we purchased every beaded item that was available for sale.
Stage 4 was my favourite stage – the day we ran with giraffes! We had been promised wildlife during this stage, and over the first 2kms I saw many antelope, zebra and buffalo in the distance, which I assumed was the experience. But no. My first close encounter was actually scary; I needed to pass some buffalo. While most of the herd moved away, one buffalo stood its ground, and started to move its head up and down. It was about 20m away. While no expert, I knew this was bad. Buffalo are extremely dangerous and can kill you if they charge. I stopped running and started walking slowly, at an angle off the path and away from the buffalo, trying to look as non-threatening as possible, never taking my eyes off it. Another group of runners was approaching from behind, seemingly oblivious to the threat. They were loud and in bright clothing. The buffalo turned and moved away, the runners went past and I was left in the bushes wondering if I had over-reacted! (I believe not).
Soon after I met up with another group, including my daughter, who emerged from deep in the bushes, having taken no chances passing the buffalo. We continued on another km and suddenly in in front saw a giraffe. And then more, on both sides of the path. And even after our initial flurry of photos and the hard decision to move on, it wasn’t over – the herd decided to go the same way! And so for more than a km, we walked the trail with giraffe in front and behind. Later in the day we took a boat to view families of hippo on the Lake, while others chose to ride horses for close views of the plains animals.
The final stage is a loop through Hells Gate National Park. Used as the inspiration for the landscape in “The Lion King” and for the filming of “King Solomon’s Mines” this park has stunning rock formations and geysers. We ran this final stage on Valentine’s Day, and were presented with red roses at the finish line, grown locally on the edge of the lake, and a major Kenyan export to the flower markets of Europe. Although our roses were later eaten by a monkey at our camp….
Kimbia Kenya is a very different style of event and one to consider if you are looking for more than just a scenic run – the combination of running, safari, inter-cultural exchange and grass roots cooperation. It is a less tough challenge than the common marathon-a-day format and this makes it more accessible to a wider range of people, including families. You can get more information at: