EAST AFRICA 2020 – THREE

DAY 20 to 23. THURSDAY – SUNDAY JANUARY 16-19 2020. KESSUP, KENYA

Brilliance is well named!

Sometimes I think I’m one of the luckiest people around! Not only do I surround myself with congenial friends, but when my newly restored motorbike breaks down, it does so at the junction to the guest house I plan to reach, and the lane from there is downhill! For that’s how my afternoon finished: with my engine, which had been struggling for the final 30 kilometres, failing at the top of the rocky track to Lelin Campsite, my destination tonight. It’s not so much a campsite as a small, wonderfully situated ‘resort’ with chalet rooms, perched on the very edge of the vast Kerio Valley, a branch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. I’ve stayed here many times and am welcomed back as an old friend.

The Kessup plateau on the lip of the Kerio Valley

I’ve come here to revisit my friend William, the retired policeman who’s been my companion in Kessup these past four years. I am ‘William’s Mzungu’, just as I am ‘Alex’s Rich Mzungu’. How fortunate I am to have these kind friends.

My journey began well enough. If you aren’t and have never been a biker, you won’t perhaps understand the sense of freedom and pleasure I felt to be setting off on a journey, having not ridden for over four months – apart from those two brief test rides up the road outside Rico’s house this week. So I set out with a smile on my face once again. A road I know well. Unexciting but quiet and with decent tarmac. And hundreds of boring speed humps, the obsession of Kenya’s Highway Authority. Maybe it keeps the speeds down for these many not very safe vehicles and bad drivers. They also cause a lot of mechanical damage and a few very serious accidents. The road sweeps in a large curve from the north of Kitale and heads to the north east, skirting the green mountains covered in dark conifers. It sweeps between some straggly towns and villages, past thousands of shambas and commercial farms, and is pleasantly rural much of the way, nipping past the northern outskirts of ugly, busy Eldoret quite quickly. Then it’s north in a steady rise towards Iten, ‘Home of Champions’, as the sign across the road at the entrance to town claims. Here are many training camps for international runners and Olympians, taking advantage of the high altitude at 7900 feet.

Through scruffy Iten, and by now I didn’t dare to stop for the ATM, for the bike was struggling seriously. And then one of the finest scenic reveals in East Africa. Round two tight bends the road drops steeply out of Iten with its untidy markets and dilapidated business buildings, to the very lip of the Rift Valley. Suddenly, the vista opens up across the depths of the Kerio Valley, thousands of feet below, scrubland and pale green expanses stretching far to the north, where they join the main Rift that splits the Earth from Mozambique to Jordan. It’s a memorable sight indeed. I still recollect my amazement the first time I came upon this theatrical reveal, back in 2001.

The Mosquito was struggling badly, losing power and gasping for fuel or air, it seemed. Downhill the symptoms reduced a little, so I kept rolling, knowing that my destination was several hundred feet lower, down the winding main road, the great view off to the left now. About four miles down I reach the rocky turn I need to bring me back to familiar Kessup. Right at the last, I decided to turn the bike and try a little venture uphill once more. Within moments the engine failed. At least all I had to do now was to freewheel to my destination, helped by enthusiastic pushing on the rocky track by a group of delightful schoolboys, thrilled to push the mzungu’s bike. Their glee was enough to lift my spirits at this latest upset. Dark blue jumpers over white shirts and dark shorts, their merriment and chatter accompanied me as I tried to slow them down to keep up! Then a slow bumpy roll down the track past William’s shamba so quietly that he didn’t hear me pass, even though he had been waiting with anticipation for the sound of the Mosquito.

What’s happened to my wheels? All those new parts and yet disaster. It sounds serious. I think repatriation to Kitale may be called for. At least I am now amongst friends who will assist in whatever way they can. I am a well known celebrity in these villages. Many of the people are featured on the portrait walls of Rock Cottage and I have just brought back a pile of prints that will be received with heartfelt friendship as William and make a regal tour tomorrow. It’s a response that I love – and one no tourist gets from their expensive animal safaris. To engage with people is why I am here. When I first met William it was in the guise of a local guide. Oddly, one of the first times I ever hired one. Instinct again? The then guest house manager, Chesoli, thought I might like a guide for a local walk. A favour to William, who lives on fresh air, his own vegetables and milk and yoghurt from his five cows and whatever his daughter, training to be a nurse in Australia sends him. “He’ll guide you to our waterfalls…”

When I met William I was immediately comfortable and later we bonded as friends. “I’m not interested in your waterfalls,” I said, “but I’d love to meet your neighbours! That’s much more interesting to me.” I found William to be a respected member of his rural community and his friendship has been my open sesame throughout the villages along this scenic plateau. I’ve been in many houses, met hundreds of his neighbours and am now ‘Kessup’s Mzungu’. “Oh, people have been asking, when is our mzungu coming?” says William within moments when we meet on the track past his small hillside shamba.

The bike parked, I decided to think no more about it for a day or two. I’ll probably have to get it back to Kitale somehow, so I may as well enjoy my sojourn in Kessup for now. My leg has coped with the ride, somewhat swollen now from the position for two and a half hours. Soon William and I were catching up in one of the small shelters overlooking the great valley, beers in hand. I sleep in my usual room, ‘Mexico’, in which I have stayed many nights now. William takes it as his personal responsibility to make sure his mzungu is looked after, harrying the staff with demands that, were he not a neighbour, me well known and the fact that I come to visit him brings them my custom, must irritate the management! The price for my room has not risen in three years, still under £12 for a simple room with a basic bathroom and a balcony room that overlooks the wonderful view below. Most places it’d cost a lot more – but then most places I guess there’d be a lavatory seat and less African foam green emulsion paint. But I like it here much better than those more pretentious places and, after all, what do I need but a bed, preferably clean, to lay my head and a door to lock out the world for eight hours?

Kessup’s mzungu is back.

***

“I thought I’d bring the stick that I use for my cows, but I knew you wouldn’t like it!” says William, arriving in the garden at breakfast time.

“No William! I’m not old enough for a stick! My pride won’t allow it. People here already think their white man is old as Methuselah!”

He’s brought an enamel mug of his cow’s ‘milik’. Fresh and delicious, it’s cool from the night. “My house is of wood, so it’s cool at night,” he explains. “I boiled it last night.” We are going to walk down in the villages below, greeting William’s neighbours and distributing photos. It’s to be a long walk, probably the longest I took in four months, apart maybe from struggling around Nairobi the other day. “We will go slowwly! For your foot!” William is very caring, like most of the Kenyans I’ve come to know. Solicitous for my comfort. Everything must be right for his mzungu.

William’s gangly, spare, a lined face a little distorted by the attack with a machete that made him end his police career. He was in the Flying Squad in Nairobi. Then in hospital for three months with the possibility of a brain operation. It was enough to make him decide to quit the violence of his job and return to his meagre shamba here in Kessup. His house is little more than a shack, his possessions few, comforts almost nil, except the flat screen satellite TV his daughter in Australia subsidised, partly as an alternative to alcohol, so that he can follow his revered Manchester City. He’s respected in the area, an upright citizen with a strong sense of honesty and fairness. He’s turning white about his sparse beard now, and white hairs appear in his receding hair. He’s 54 now. A calm, relaxed fellow who knows everyone on the plateau, and introduces me to most of them.

It’s a relaxed wander. “Oh, it will be HOT!” he exclaims, seeing me tie my thin jersey round my waist as we leave. But I explain that I am from England and we never take the weather for granted. Later I am grateful to throw the jersey over my neck to screen the burning sun. It IS hot! VERY hot, as we amble between small houses and shambas, shaking hands with hundreds, joking with children, being welcomed into fields and compounds, greeted and hailed as we walk. I add twenty or thirty portraits to my collection each day we walk, smiling, cheerful folk, happy to welcome ‘their mzungu’ again. It’s convivial and generous. Soon I have my pockets bulging with ripe passion fruits, a crop that seems to be being cultivating everywhere this year. Purple eggs filled with mysterious, slightly slimy but the sweetest pulp and seeds. This is fruit season in East Africa. Juice-dripping pineapples unlike any we know in Europe cost a pound. Mangoes are the sweetest and most succulent, about 15 pence each. Two ultimately delicious fruits.

I’ve brought back at least forty photos that we must hand out. It’s a great introduction of course. Invariably, I must take more. People are happy and pose cheerfully. It’s difficult in this beating, high sunshine, so near the Equator. I have to choose my locations carefully, otherwise all I get is a black silhouette – black faces against the squintingly dazzling landscape. Harsh light, strong contrast, black skins, white smiles.

Maureen

Rongue was born in 1928

‘Lunch’

We meet Maureen and Mercy; Rael and Purity. We meet cheerful ‘Lunch’. “Eh, even as a young boy, if you asked him where he was going, he would reply, ‘No, I am going for lunch’, so we gave him that name!” explains William with a laugh. Later, we meet Changwony – William’s 85 year old father; also Rongue, his senior by seven years. Old men here. Changwony’s senior brother is even older. “Maybe 100!” says William. Who knows? I often hear that people are “100”, but it’s difficult to know. It doesn’t matter. They receive the respect of their community, these rare old men. Rongue lives in a small earth house on a dusty terrace. He can’t walk any more and is looked after by his daughter and her husband, visited by legions of grandchildren, respected for his extreme age. He knows he was born in 1928, but not the month. He was a policeman too. We sit in his dark, stained bedroom. He sits on the iron bedstead, on somewhat unsavoury blankets. A kitten sleeps on the bed. Rongue has all his wits and even his eyes are sharp enough to enjoy my photos, even to laugh at the picture I take of him, viewed on the back of my camera. I got him to smile this year. Last year I got only a formal stare, these old people maybe only used to posed photos for colonial ID passes. No photographer ever came to Rongue’s simple house before. In the evening we send him two bottles of Coke via his daughter, a well received mark of respect, William says.

With Mercy, Faith, Ruth and Cherile

The children, Faith, Ruth, Cherile and Mercy are fascinated to be close to a mzungu who sits on a black rock on the edge of the great escarpment down to the usually parched Kerio Valley below. This year, it’s green and the lake in the middle, used by elephants and animals that roam down there in a small national reserve, has swelled to four times its size, now covered in dense green weed, visible from my vantage point up here amongst the children several miles away. The children are excited and touch my skin, feel the hair on my arms, stare at my blue eyes, exclaiming. Probably they never came close to white skin before, as they pull my ears and stroke my hair, giggling at their bravery. “There’s only a millimetre of difference!” I explain. But Purity, their mother, believes I am white all the way through! She’s astonished when I tell her that my blood is just as red as hers. She’s probably not very well educated. She lives in a crude compound that I can see far below, amongst usually arid fields. Her shamba is poor. I visited last year and wondered how anyone could live in such privation.

Naomi with her daughter Prudence

Education levels are very mixed here. It depends on the family. I meet one mother whose five children are all at university. Her last-born, a quiet youth, has just finished school with the highest marks in the region. He’s bound for university in due course too. In September, his mother tells me. She’s stopped briefly from weeding her flowers around her simple zinc and timber home. A well maintained compound, not many grow flowers around their homes. This is a family with keen intelligence and education. “The only thing you can do for your children is to educate them and make them independent!” she says. But I wonder why then she has five children?

Folk here in the villages have no idea of world affairs. Of fears of the climate crisis. To them, the resources of our ailing planet are infinite. They know nothing of global warming, the climate emergency, the depletion of their soils, contamination of their lands, overpopulation – the cause of their self-inflicted poverty. No one educates them of the consequences of having so many children. In fact, the opposite: the churches and mosques irresponsibly promulgate these high birth rates.

“Oh, I will have at least FIVE children!” says a young man, planting onion seedlings on a patch of red soil. “I must! It’s good to have many children. And if I don’t, who will inherit my land? How will I be remembered when I die?”

“But if you have two, you replace yourself and your wife, you can afford to educate them, keep them healthy, and you still carry on your ‘name’ and everyone has a better life…” He looks at me as if I am telling him a joke. It’s incomprehensible. Beyond belief. Madness. “…And if you have five children, they will each inherit just twenty percent of your land! If you have two they will have half each. If you have so many, and they have so many, they will end up with a piece of Kenya the size of this seed bed!”

Warnings of the heating planet mean nothing here. It’s always been hot. So what, if it gets a bit hotter? There’s no understanding that these conditions will be irreversible. That by the end of the century this land on which we are standing will be uninhabitable. That their great grandchildren (a generation here being about 18 years) will be suffering as no one has yet suffered in humankind.

In the West we may tinker with emissions targets and boast about ‘cleaner’ lifestyles, but while Africa – and the Indian Subcontinent, South East Asia, South America, and most of the world beyond the relatively educated ‘developed’ countries, keep up their exponential birth rates, there is no hope.

But the children here are charming and fun. Inquisitive, curious, cheerful. Happy to have a mzungu passing by. They chorus from distant hills and shambas, run to politely greet. Shake their fruit-sticky fingers in mine. These are happy wanderings for me.

I could have brought Angel, on the left, home!

And I’m feeling very upbeat about my ankle! This was to be the test, my time in Kessup. I have wondered for some weeks how I would cope with the very rough, broken surfaces of the red footpaths and tracks amongst the village shambas, even sometimes walking over broken fields and rock strewn hills. These days I walk many kilometres, usually at a gentle amble, but on rough, steep hilly surfaces. I’m careful where I put my foot but walk up and down the hills and across the expansive plateau. By the second long walk my ankle barely swells and suddenly I can stand on my toes – which I couldn’t do even four days ago! I have decided that I am trying for the three month recovery, not the six months that the physio nurse forecast! “Three to six months from removing the big boot,” she warned me, meaning doubtless, that a 70 year old might expect the longer time. I’m now nine weeks past that day. Well, here I am getting a LOT of gentle exercise, plenty of sun and no stress. These days have made more difference than the previous weeks. It may take many months to rebuild the muscles, but even now the limp is reducing – except when I am on the home straight of a long rugged walk. In the morning my ankles look equal, all swelling gone, but I hate the fact that I have one muscle-dwindled leg of an old man and one of a healthy middle aged man, but I’ll be working on that over the next weeks too!

No, William was right, no way am I using his cow stick!

***

People often ask me, “What do you DO in Africa?” Well, these days were typical. I met and talked to hundreds of charming village folk on the Kessup plateau, in scorching sunshine that has turned various bits of me beetroot red.

The resort here gets to be a noisy place on weekends. A busload of teenage schoolboys arrived on Sunday morning, trooping off their bus with respectful greetings for a school day out. Middle class families often come for a treat. A few sodas and a meal of potatoes and meat at tables in the gardens overlooking the fine views of Kerio Valley. Everyone is extremely polite. As I passed one family group, with a smile and a hello, one of the boys asked, almost as if he hadn’t really meant to be heard, “How old are you?”

“Seventy!” I replied cheerily.

“But you are looking so STRONG!” said Dave. “Look at us, we are 18 and already looking old! Give us some tips.”

It’s so disarming! How could I fail to be charmed by such politeness – let alone the compliment?! I gave Dave to usual ‘tips’ about exercise and diet. To those I add one more: to remain amongst young people. Easy in Africa. Dave was very charming in his interest and respect. How attractive that he was prepared to chat so unselfconsciously with an old bloke. What fun travelling in Africa is as an older person!

The only other guests staying in the Lelin Campsite are a very congenial older couple from Germany. Wanda is in her mid sixties, and her husband Jorg just turning sixty. They are travelling in a 20 year old German registered Land Cruiser, thoughtfully converted for African travel. Like me, they have been coming for three months a year for the past eight years, after shipping the car to Cape Town and now leaving it with friends in Tanzania, as I leave my Mosquito in Kitale. They’ve visited here at Kessup these last four years, and wander about East Africa for three months. We have, of course, many similarities in our attitudes to and love of things African. Wanda is an artist and Jorg a mechanic. We’ve travelled to MANY of the same places with remarkably similar tastes. Jorg first came to Africa 40 years ago, beating me by seven years. He crossed the Sahara as a 19 year old and they’ve travelled in many countries, obsessed by Africa – as can happen! I know only too well.

Long conversations ensued and we swapped ideas and routes. They have put me off the idea of Tanzania, telling me that the rains are extreme and flooding rampant. This should be the dry season… Instead, we have been talking of northern Uganda. Well, I enjoy the Ugandans very much and haven’t seen the proper north, tribal areas different to most of the country. When Wanda and Jorg come to Kitale in a few days, I shall introduce them to Rico and Adelight. They’ll find a lot of links!

Jorg asked if he could join William and I on our third long village wander. We walked six or seven miles on rough ground and rocky red tracks. We met and interacted with probably another 100 people, shaking hands with them all, joking and laughing together, invited into homes and compounds, investigating shambas and playing with dozens of happy children. They are such fun. Natural and expressive, unlike most Western children, their inhibitions slight – once they pass their diffidence with a mzungu. It’s easy to put that to rest. Sometimes children are just so attractive that I could bring them home! Angel, about three or four, was such a child! We spent the day with a motley collection of children following the two wazungus, calling, greeting and playing. Such fun.

One of the people we met was Mokijo, an ancient lady older than Rongue. He was born in 1928. Mokijo, William translated, calls Rongue ‘no more than a young boy’. She’s another one who claims to be ‘100’. Everywhere people welcomed us with delight, a happy progress through the villages.

Mokijo calls Rongue, born in 1928 just a young boy!

Terik with a gradchild

A home in Kessup

Maureen’s home in Kessup

William has negotiated with a brother in law to carry the Mosquito back to Kitale in a pick up. I hope Rico can discover the sickness so that I can set off on my next safari before long.

But this enforced wait has given time for my leg to repair a good deal. The walking these last three days has done wonders. The ankle hardly swells now, I begin to be able to take my weight on my toes again, and the leg is – very slowly – becoming stronger. I am content.

Mokijo, Terik and William

Changwony, William’s father, about 85

DAY 24/ 25 MONDAY/ TUESDAY JANUARY 20th/21st 2020. KITALE, KENYA

By pick up with two young men, Titus the driver and Leonard, William’s nephew and the owner’s son, back to Kitale. The owner has made a good profit from the 150 mile round trip, charging me £55. Oh well, I had to get the Mosquito home. An easy journey, Titus never exceeded 35 miles an hour. I sat crunched up in the middle of the small pick up seat, the bike strapped in behind.

In the afternoon, Rico and I (well, Rico really, of course) took the carburettor to pieces, for we’ve both decided that the problem must be related to fuel delivery. We put the machine up on a box and removed the carb. Then Rico began to dissect it. After a time, poking with tweezers, he called me to look at it through the magnifying glass. “What’s that..?”

‘That’ was a shred of old twisted copper flex wire, wrapped around the main jet with a strand going into the hole that the needle slides up and down inside, regulating – very finely – the petrol flow.

It took me until well into beer time, and a search back through my old diaries to identify the culprit. This out and put bodge must have been applied by a ‘mechanic’ in Masaka, Uganda two years ago:

It was after noon before I got away from Masaka. By then Jahz’s boys had stripped my carburettor, emptied and cleaned out my tank and found me two new Japanese spark plugs somewhere in town. Meanwhile, I adjusted the chain and washed the extremely dirty air filter. This was all done on oil and petrol soaked mud at the edge of a piece of town wasteland, during which a downpour added filth to the underfoot conditions.

Three hours work in Masaka cost me £2. I’m pretty certain this was when the African ‘repair’ was installed in my carburettor! It’s been there several thousand miles. We’ve identified the parts we need and Rico ordered them from the Suzuki representative in Nairobi. It has taken all day to organise this. “What do you DO in Africa?” people ask. Well, every piece of business takes a day. Rico rang the company in the morning. The man in Nairobi said he’d check availability and call back in a few minutes. A couple of hours later, he asked for a photo of the parts we need but gave us an inoperative electronic address. I had to email the photo to the business address and we had to ring the salesman to check the company email. They had closed for lunch. After lunch the fellow promised he’d check and call back shortly. ‘Shortly’ was late afternoon… Finally, he admitted they had the parts in stock. “Please tell us the cost and we’ll transfer the money!” says Rico. “Then you can put them on tonight’s bus to Kitale.”

“Oh, but it’s raining here,” says the fellow in Nairobi.

“So you don’t have an umbrella?” asks Rico as I laugh in the corner.

Business in Africa is done differently. The man in Nairobi doesn’t want to get wet taking the parts, probably on a boda-boda to the bus depot. So he delays telling us the cost of the parts to keep dry. Meanwhile, I wait. I spend another day of my trip waiting, despite Rico’s insistence that I am stranded and wasting my money and time. The fellow doesn’t want to get wet! This is not Amazon next day delivery!

So, more quiet days. One thing Africa teaches is patience.

The ‘most expensive potatoes’ Adelight ever bought – the ones we bought on the Mount Elgon slopes the other evening, all turned out to be rather soft and inedible! They have all been planted in Adelight’s shamba. “So I’ll have to come back next year to enjoy the bloody things?” I asked, to her laughter.

I’m the world’s lightest sleeper. Why ever do I come to Africa? ‘Jonathan’s House’ is in the garden, a simple block of cement plaster over an earth and stick framework, with a red zinc roof. It’s becoming engulfed in a fast growing avocado tree. In the properties around there must be thirty bloody dogs, including Rico’s own three – Pablo, Booby and Gerry and the cute little hairy pup. I’ve suggested a large barbecue might make my nights a damned sight more peaceful. Rico, a dog lover, doesn’t really share my thoughts. He maintains that they are necessary for security. Of course, that’s something you can never prove without barbecuing the noisy buggers! Even ear plugs, my nightly habit here now, don’t combat the chorus some nights. How I wish I slept like an average African.

Days here are slow and congenial, family days. We eat simply, enjoy the sun, work at a relaxed pace – and wait on the whim of salesmen down in Nairobi who don’t want to get wet taking parts to the bus depot for despatch, and never calling back as they promise.

Life in Africa works at a different pace. You just have to be philosophical and relax.

And wait…

Angel

Nancy

EAST AFRICA 2020 – TWO

DAYS 15/16/17. SATURDAY-MONDAY JANUARY 11/12/13 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

The biggest satisfaction – and pride – in my life is having friends all over the world. And what fun to bring two of my ‘families’ together, as I have today. For years ago, I entirely bought into the belief in extended families, the finest aspect of African life. I am as much accepted into my various families on this continent as if I had the blood relations that we in the West find so overwhelmingly important.

My travelling friendships and these families that, especially in Africa, accept me into their midst in the most meaningful way – are entirely based on instinct. It’s all I have when I start with a clean sheet, in unfamiliar cultures. Over my decades of travel, this instinct has become quite well honed and very valuable to me.

I have introduced my two East African families. “Well, actually, you are rather good at that!” Rico complimented me, over his third Nile Special. But it’s easy, when the people I introduce are so open and honest. A warmly friendly evening has cemented some more friendships, via my introduction. I am happy.

A family adventure. Scovia, Rico and Maria, Marion and Adelight on the road from Suam

In 2017 I took my first safari on the Mosquito, entering Uganda – a country I have come to love for it’s delightful people – through the remote Suam River border, only fifty kilometres from Kitale. It’s the route we’ve used to come for our short family holiday. It’s an appalling road, but probably my favourite ride in East Africa. It is no more than a rutted, incredibly dusty, pitted and rocky track around the slopes of spreading Mount Elgon. The views to the north are spectacular, across mile upon mile of northern Uganda, volcanic cones reduced to mere pimples by the scale of the infinite landscape. I gaze down from my dusty perch amongst straggling villages peopled by waving rural Ugandans, accompanied by choruses of children excitedly yelling, “MZUNGU! How are youuuu!” There are always legions of small children everywhere. They add so much joy to my journeys, if I forget for a while the environmental impact of this exponential Ugandan birthrate. It’s a delight to ride this eventful, scenic road, battling the obstacles on the trail, thrilled by the vast views into the sunny north beyond green shambas of countless banana trees. The sun is warm; the air, away from the clouds of invasive red dust, clean and invigorating as it washes up from the blue vistas below. The journey is wonderful, always above 1700 metres, reaching 2239 metres up on the hills amongst the thatched-roofed villages.

UBER Uganda

On the road to Sipi. It’s not good! But my favourite in East Africa.

Back in 2017, several rides across this mountain ago, I reached Sipi, smothered in red dust, my face thick with the residue of this awful/ wonderful road, exhilarated by the thrills of the ride, exhausted by the energetic leaping and bucketing. It was to me the ultimate trail ride. But a trail ride with a purpose. And a trail ride in Africa! There’ve been many of them of course in the, what? 70 or 80 thousand miles I have ridden on this continent. But this is still a highlight, just under 100 miles of fun and scenery. When I got to Sipi that first time, I looked for a place to sleep and, after casting about for half an hour, alighted upon a place up red tracks and footpaths deep in the banana and coffee shambas. But it was the young woman there that made up my mind to stay. A happy decision that has brought me another delightful family – Alex, Precious and their two small children.

We are Rock Garden’s first official guests. Scovia and I cut the ribbon on the second round house.

Precious is well named. She’s now 24, a little voluptuously overweight, with an appetite unequal to any I ever knew. She’s filled with instantaneous laughter, often joining jokes against herself. She’s generous and completely honest in her emotions. She is what she is, and that is an attraction I recognised instinctively and immediately on that first meeting.

When I arrived, layered in red dust and dirt, I looked wild and frightful. Precious was terrified by what she saw ride through the gate. She admits it now with her infectious laughter. “Eh! Jonat’an, I was friiiiightened! I called Alex, and told him a mad mzungu was here at the guest house!” In fact, the local bush telegraph was so efficient that others had already alerted him by phone that a mzungu was approaching his place on a piki-piki. He arrived some time later, by which time I’d rinsed some of the dust into mud with a bucket of cold water, and looked a little more like an ageing mzungu with a white beard. Less a dishevelled madman.

So the friendships were confirmed. A family was formed. Another warm African family for me. I soon realised that these two young people (Alex was then about 29) were kind, without any artifice whatsoever, trustworthy, generous with their friendship without any expectation of reward, and full of integrity. Long ago Alex had ambitions to become a doctor. He’d have been a good one too. But in this Ugandan economy, as one of no less than nine siblings, the opportunity wasn’t there. He trained in hotel management instead. Precious, from far away on the other side of Uganda, in the lovely mountains and lakes of the western mountains that I’ve enjoyed so much, trained in hotel hospitality also. They met working in Kampala, in a hotel in which Alex was hugely popular with the customers, but as so often in Uganda – which has minimal workers’ rights – exploited by the mean spirits and greed of the owners. He left to return to his roots in Sipi, where he finds himself in exactly the same situation in a hotel in nearby Kapchorwa, the regional town. There he works for seven days a week, any hours required, for another mean and greedy owner, and is paid the pittance of £59 – about £2.00 a day, for all duties. Alex says he scrupulously avoids any transactions with money, just the sort of imagined cheating that his much less honest, mean employer could use to accuse him of wrong-doing and further cut his pittance. Adelight pays her shamba boy/ watchman £47 a month for light duties, with virtually no responsibilities and a day and a half off every weekend… Alex manages a regional hotel for £2 a day.

So you can see why my support has become so vital. I decided to sponsor Alex and Precious in their attempts to become independent, with their own small ‘resort’ hotel. It’s a humble affair so far. But Alex, one of those few Africans who will think for tomorrow, a weakness all across this continent, has much bigger plans. He has dreams. It’s humbling to see how hard he must work to achieve even a small portion of those dreams. However, he’s pragmatic, and determined. When I come to visit now, I can see that every penny of my support – to date maybe around £1000 – has been put to honest use. Already he has two delightful thatched round houses, built of generally local materials. He has planted shrubs and bushes, flowers and grass – for eventual camping grounds. He is half way through constructing a huge restaurant, raised a couple of metres on posts to take advantage of the expansive view above the matoke (banana) trees of his neighbours. He has created a barbecue, made two rooms within his own earth walled house, and improved the pit latrine. Of course, he plans internal flushing lavatories, gravel paths, better security fencing, a smart gateway, and and a decent kitchen. Oh, he has plans and dreams! Talking with him, I can see some of those ambitions in my head. If anyone can do it, Alex and Precious will win out. But on £2 a day, imagine the length of the dreams he must foster, the disappointments he must accept, the frustrations of seeing his life pass and his children grow, while he has only his aspirations to fuel his endless graft. He must educate his two children, keep the family secure and fed, deal with the visible depredations here of climate change, overcome the appalling corruption at all lower levels of Ugandan bureaucracy – try to forge his independence and support his young family. Most of us in the West would be complaining that life was against us. In Africa almost always life is against those with dreams and ambitions, be they only for independence.

At the same time, Alex is chairman of the youth of his area, dealing with all sorts of problems, most of them based around the voluntary work he does to try to bring down the appalling birthrate, influence equality for girls and women and remove from this traditional community the barbarity of female genital mutilation, all in a region in which statistics of HIV/ AIDS is deeply depressing. While cooking for us and managing his grass roots hotel with five guests, he was comforting a woman whose voluntary sterilisation had been botched by a local doctor, organising community events for his group to bring enlightenment in rural villages and called back and forth by his unpleasant employer, jealous that Alex is trying against all odds to forge his own independent life, and using this as an excuse to exploit him the more. MY dream is that we can make this charming young family independent of exploitative employers. I have promised that my support will continue – just one of the various calls that make me hope for another contract from my American contacts! But from my support of so many Africans I get so much satisfaction and heartfelt warmth that I have come to understand that sometimes there’s even MORE joy to giving than receiving. I am truly part of their family: ‘Precious’s first born’, she says. More like their grandfather, but nonetheless happily welcomed home for a visit. When Alex told Precious that I had been injured, he tells me, laughing, that she burst into tears and exclaimed, “OH! Jonat’an is OLD! He won’t be able to visit us! I will meeees him too much! I love him!”

When I first came to Sipi, little Keilah, Precious’s daughter, was just a baby. Terrified of the white man, she would burst into screams of alarm. She’s still shy and skirts me circumspectly, but slowly she adapts to a white man in her house. Then last February I met the ‘secret baby’. The little boy was born in November 2018 but I stayed four days in the house in February last year without Precious telling me about her second baby (and last, says Alex, working hard to bring down the Ugandan population explosion). “Eh, Jonata’n is always telling me Ugandan women have too many babies!” she exclaimed in explanation of her omission, despite the fact that the little boy is named Jonathan, and nicknamed JB! Added to which, their resort is named Rock Gardens in respect of Rock Cottage!

So, it’s obvious that I have become fond of this small family. And they of me. Alex is smart, intellectually bright, honest to a fault, and desperately hard working. A man of dreams and ambitions who will achieve his goals against all odds through hard work.

My Ugandan family.

Now I have introduced two of my African families to one another. It’s been successful, and heart warming to see the two small girls playing together; to watch Adelight and Precious laughing together; to hear the genuine invitations to visit Kitale, where I know the Ugandan family would be made very welcome, and pick up ideas from Rico’s knowledge of Africa and practical solutions to water pumps, solar systems, and the like. Fun too to see the older girls enjoy a ‘foreign’ trip and the excitement of walking the rural area, exploration of the waterfalls and the delight of sitting conversing and eating beside a roaring fire in the quiet, chilly full-moonlit garden of Rock Gardens Resort, Scovia and Marion grinning in the firelight, all of us pulling adorable Precious’s leg, to her delighted laughter. It’s been satisfying to facilitate this short safari to Uganda. Worth the dust. Worth being confined (as I see it of course!) within Rico’s car as we drove the fairground ride of the dreadful trail across the mountains amidst the cries of happy children.

This is Africa. What a biased impression we have of the absolute joy that life on this red continent can be.

****

We began our journey on Saturday morning, a full, heavy vehicle. The road to the Kenyan border is being rebuilt, entailing long bypasses on rutted tracks alongside the new road. Dust everywhere. It’s a couple of hours to Suam, a selection of battered wood and zinc border huts beside a bent gate and a dribbly river, in which children frolic and shout as we cross the narrow bridge: twisted railings and ‘1956’ inscribed in the beaten cement. There’s no shred of tarmac within thirty miles. Formalities on the remote border are pretty simple. Another two stamps each way in my fast-filling passport. “Please squeeze them in,” I request with a smile. “It’s filling up with all these African visas and I want to keep my EU passport until it expires in 2025! I’m proud of it and don’t want a blue Brexit passport with a lot of ridiculous restrictions!”

We bump over the frail bridge, due for replacement by a fine ‘one-stop’ border post when the new Chinese roads reach the border. It’ll be a long time coming from the Uganda side. It’s challenging country for new roads and the progress is much slower than across the rolling country from Kitale. In a few more months the tar may reach Suam on the Kenya side. But I will be able to enjoy the ‘fun’ of the Ugandan road for a while to come. When the tar comes it will change the dynamic amongst these rural people. I doubt they’ll be so excited by mzungus on motorbikes then. For me some of the magic will evaporate, but of course, for people along the road it will bring new opportunities, new access to sales for their produce, more ability to move about. More accidents too…

For now, our papers in order, we drive away through straggly Suam, a place of appalling ruts and bumps, the trading post for the border, and doubtless for smuggling and illegal cross-border trade. Nowadays, the real rough trail starts here. It’ll continue, thick red dust, ruts, bumps and trials, hacked out of the hillsides through simple villages for many miles until we pick up the first tentative kilometres of graded highway that’ll one day make all this so boring – for me. We bump through the backwoods town of Bukwo: rough and ready buildings, a town council office, bars, shack shops and boda-bodas everywhere. Kapchorwa, the town we will come to before we reach Alex and Precious, has a population of 50,000, and 1000 pesky boda-boda taxi motorbikes. Like insects, they buzz and swarm, irritate and weave about, unconcerned for dangers.

There’s a long climb out of Bukwo, a rocky track rising in hairpins to a view across Kenya and Uganda, steeping in bright sunshine below. Then we climb to the top of our present journey. Rico’s sat-nav tells us the highest we reach is 2239 metres. The air is clear, the sun dazzling, the steep hillsides very green this year. It’s unseasonably wet. Climate change is perhaps more obvious in these places. It has more effect too on the people, who for hundreds of years have relied on their local lore for times to sow and harvest, which crops flourish when. Now conditions are changing rapidly. Not far from Kitale a few weeks ago, a devastating flood killed more than 200 and left many homeless. Of course, this never even makes the news in our arrogant Western media. These people, who have no access to state help to restore their livelihoods, are ignored in favour of a few white people suffering insured losses of a few inches of water that damages their ‘stuff’. People here lose what very little they have. There are seldom emergency services, no restoration plans, no rush to donate charity. If you’re in the path of climate change here, you just have to get on and get back with your own meagre resources. Climate change wished upon these poor folk by the greed and recklessness of the so-called ‘developed world’. So ‘developed’ we cause havoc and misery to the unprepared – and ourselves.

Heads wrapped in scarves to combat some at least of the dense dust, Adelight and Maria, Scovia and Marion leap and jerk about, laughing at the beginning, but tiring of the adventure fairly soon. They aren’t so fascinated by the villages we pass as I am. Once they’ve seen the view, they want to arrive. They live in this landscape and know these peoples. To them these appalling tracks are a nuisance to moving about, not a challenge that makes my holiday more fun. I seek out these roads. People here take them only when required and there’s no alternative. It’s easy to forget how accustomed I have become to my comforts, so that a bit of ‘suffering’ becomes fun that puts a smile on my face.

After hours of this battle – about seven hours in total – we reach ‘civilisation’ in the form of scruffy, busy, rugged Kapchorwa. Here I can change money at the ATM to give to Alex to pay for our weekend at the nascent Rock Gardens. He’s there now, awaiting us, desperately putting the finishing touches to the two round houses, built of local sticks and earth that will accommodate his first real guests – for we don’t really count my few days last February. He’s had to wrack his brains how to put us all up. He completed the second round room and bought a second double bed of local posts and planks this week. He’s made a room in his own house for me. The cement is still damp where he’s inventively created a small bathroom space from what was the front corridor of his small home. Unfortunately, the builder omitted to instal a drain. The living room has been turned into a kitchen round the back, accessed across muddy ground. In the kitchen are two charcoal braziers and various crude tables, heaps of vegetables being chopped by the crew Alex has co-opted to help this weekend. Two of them are junior colleagues at the mean-spirited hotel. They’ll keep their mouths shut about Alex’s guests for now, happy to help and get experience in a more cheerful, equal atmosphere.

We’ve just time to cut the ribbons that laughing Precious has hung in front of the two round rooms before the heavens open. It’s chilly too. It just shouldn’t be raining at this season. She’s decorated the rooms with heavily scented flowers, draped fabric to hide the still-drying mud plaster. Put balloons and greenery in the part-finished restaurant space to welcome her first foreign guests. Quickly the surfaces turn to mud as we unpack the car and prepare for the evening. The sun soon sets and the rain blows itself out enough that Alex can cuts some turfs and make a lovely fire in the garden. Here we sit and chatter while the legion of boys and the chef that Alex has employed for three days, cook a vast banquet of delicious tilapia from Lake Victoria with ‘Irish’, as potatoes are called in Uganda, matoke (savoury bananas), sweet potatoes and vegetable curry. It’s a huge meal and welcome when it arrives about nine o’clock. By now Rico and I have downed three bottles of Nile Special as we all gaze into the fascination of a wood fire in the open. But we’re dressed in jackets and blankets by now. We are at 1814 metres in the garden. The new raised structure, still just an open sided place for now, we have discovered, is at 1818m above sea level. I’ve suggested it’s the name Alex could give his conference terrace/ restaurant. He loves the idea. ‘1818’ it will be. “Oh, everyone will ask! It will be our secret!” He intends to use the raised area for hire for meetings; the bar in the room below.

‘1818’. The new bar building part complete.

Round the fire at Rock Gardens. Precious, Marion, Scovia, Keilah and Maria, Adelight, Rico

He’s got electricity at Rock Gardens now. Rico has pointed out to me the wire snaking up to the electric lines that pass over the property. It’s an illegal connection, running down below the zinc roof. “I have applied again and again for an official connection! They are all cheats. They want bribes. I shall apply again.” It will be a long time before there is chilled beer though. We must get used to slightly warm beer from the store at the corner of the red track that sidles down to Alex’s place, deep in the lovely greenery of this rural village, trimmed grass lining the path, trimmed not by lawnmowers but livestock. Whenever we sit on the part-completed, raised ‘1818’ this weekend, the village will make excuses to pass to view the two muzungus and their black family. Children just come and wait by the young hedge of bright yellow leaves to stare – until we wave and greet. It’s very charming and so much fun to be able to give so much pleasure with a wave.

On Sunday we all piled into the car, Alex, Precious, Keilah and little Jonathan joining Rico, Adelight, Scovia, Marion, little Maria – who’s now best friends with her quiet Ugandan counterpart – and me, and ride off to visit the falls for which Sipi is known. It’s the first time I have seen more than a trickle dropping the 300 feet or so over the cliff edge. After all the ill-timed rain, they are abundant, spraying into their dripping valley of big-leafed plant life and slippery rocks. Health and safety are to normal African standards here and in view of the weakness in my right foot I decide that discretion may be wiser for the last part of the clamber on mud and rock. I wait at the foot of the falls while the others scramble higher, carrying babies and small children. Later, they all hike down through the wet valley to the lower falls and emerge some time later onto the road full of their walk. We drive back to Sipi and take another walk on the high escarpment, from which I am used to view half Uganda, but now it’s all invisible in a haze of evaporating moisture. The gigantic vista that is usually there, stretching from this high vantage perhaps 100 miles to the sunset horizon is a mystery today. Only there in my description as we stand on the rocky edge and view the thousand shambas below us.

At Sipi Falls. Alex and Jonathan Junior, Precious, Marion and Keilah, Scovia, Adelight and Maria

Everyone’s tired now, walking indeterminate sand paths between matoke and coffee, over big rocks and amongst hidden red mud and stick dwellings, the local style here. Always followed by excited, giggling children. We are greeted everywhere. Smiles and welcomes, handshakes and invitations. This is a remarkable country, friendly and welcoming to an extreme. I often try to decide which is the friendliest African country. I’ve travelled in 23 of the 54. It’s a difficult competition. Almost ALL are affectionate and convivial. Uganda is high on the winning list. Along with my favourite Lesotho, and Zambia. Zimbabwe and Ghana score well too. Then there’s Ethiopia, Kenya, and all the rest. Only Botswana, so rich it is aloof; Rwanda, still a bit remote from its recent dreadful history, and Namibia, a country that has no reason to like the white man, the German colonialists having one of the most appallingly bloodstained histories as recently as 100 years ago – only these countries seem to me to be less open and trustful. South Africa is the only country in which I am embarrassed by my skin colour and my extreme privilege, although I have come to love that troubled country almost as much as any other. It just takes a different attitude to meet the people, mainly trust on my part.

Rico holds Keilah. maria and Jonathan Junior – ‘JB’

****

On Monday, with the challenge of getting the whole of two extended families moving being like herding cats, we made a late start. By now we were all comfortable, content to sit long over breakfast – a huge meal, as always in this generous new guest house. At last we took a local walk to pay respects to Alex’s parents in the next compound, and to visit his father’s various shambas. Alex’s father retired a couple of years ago – with four children of his nine still in full time education – from being a member of the guard for the president. President Museveni, perhaps the most corrupt president in Africa? It’s another difficult competition, but he’s certainly up there. One of the richest too, after over 32 years on office, kept that way by changing the country’s constitution, blatant corruption and bribing fellow politicians or ‘removing’ any opposition. “Oh, I was his good friend. Whenever he visits the region, I go to visit him,” says Alex’s father while Rico and I bite our tongues.

I’ve met several of Alex’s siblings now: brothers Cedric and Nic and sisters Helen and Gloria. They are all intelligent, deeply respectful and upright people. This must, I suppose, reflect on his parents. His mother, coming to greet me on her way from church on Saturday evening made me the traditional greeting, going down on one knee and grasping my hand. Little Keilah has been taught the same deferential greeting.

Alex’s father has large plots. The family has lived in this part of Sipi for several generations. He uses no artificial fertiliser, relying only on natural manure for his crops. He’s trying to develop a small farm of passion fruit, as well as the usual matoke, coffee and vegetables. Rico enjoys this wander. Maybe Marion, with her keen interest in things agricultural and natural will benefit too.

A vegetable that is popular here are the ‘Irish’ – potatoes. I’m not a potato lover, but the western Ugandan strain is tasty. Adelight, whose mother is Ugandan by tribe, wanted to carry home potatoes. Alex proposed an expedition to buy them from farmers high on the mountain slopes. Over the years I have learned never to ask directions or distance from a non-driver in Africa. People who travel by foot or matatu have little concept of how far they move. Alex, for all his skills, is always a passenger. “Oh, when I come there, it seems quite near!” This was a journey on which we should have set out two hours earlier!

From Kapchorwa we wound high onto the slopes of Mount Elgon. I rode much of this way two years ago, but this time we went way beyond my destination that time – a local funeral that I attended with Precious. At 2550 metres the air was sharp, the sun low on the western horizon, the road poor, although graded since my previous passage on the Mosquito that ended up with Precious and I tumbling and grazing her bare legs on a deeply scarred and thickly dusted steep hill. At last, at about the top of the road, Alex told Rico to stop. We were in a ragged, earth-stained village set amongst handsome scenery of steep hills and tall woods. “We’re in the National Park,” said Alex, “but people trespassed and now they won’t move away.”

We’re in the National Park, but people have moved in too now.

As a non-driver, Alex left the instruction to stop too late for Rico to turn the heavy Pajero. But he’s lived and driven in Africa in appalling conditions in countries like Congo and Sudan. We has to carry on over the hill on a narrowing rugged track between deeply eroded embankments to find a place to turn. He finds an unlikely place that will suffice and executes a multi-point turn, getting stuck across the deep ruts. Everyone has to pile out to push before we can climb back to the remote village above, where people watch, wrapped in blankets against the increasing evening chill. After Alex negotiates, we pile a 50 kilo sack of red potatoes into the back of the vehicle and start back into the darkening countryside. “The most expensive potatoes you ever bought!” exclaims Rico to Adelight, “Over sixty kilometres of rugged driving!” I’m not sure what the potatoes cost. I know it took 70,000 of my last Uganda shillings (£15), to which Alex added the balance from the ‘community chest’ £100 I provided on arrival. Expensive in time and effort they may have been, but the expedition to the high slopes was invigorating and beautiful, even if we arrived back at Rock Gardens in the dark, to a fire lit in the garden by Alex’s ‘staff’.

I have come to love Uganda. For its charming people. It’s a country with many problems, not least poverty and corruption – which so often in Africa go hand in hand. It is deeply conservative, with the Catholic church – and other dotty denominations – promulgating misogyny and homophobia more extreme than many African lands. Religion is a big business here. Churches make big incomes from their devout but poorly educated congregations, most of them ripe ground for cynical exploitation. Underlying these reactionary attitudes is a tradition of respect and courtesy and deference. As a visitor, I am openly welcomed, although I feel the need to stay within conventional bounds. It’s not a place that embraces many liberal views. Better just to smile keep opinions to myself, although Alex is intelligent enough to express his more liberal attitudes to his visiting mzungu friend – in private.

I sat late by the fire with my young hosts. The Kenyan family slipped away to bed in their round rooms. We sat by the embers a little longer enjoying being together, discussing dreams and plans for their future. How, I wonder, will this charming young family make out? One thing I know is that they will not be cowed by the challenges ahead. Their eyes are open to the difficulties facing them, as they face so many young Africans, trapped by lack of resources, facing gross overpopulation and the woes of the speedily increasing climate crisis. In Europe we may complain of restrictions and deprivation. We have no idea whatsoever of what it is like to be intelligent, determined, honest – and African… Peoples left behind and ignored by our complacent wealth, much of it made at the expense of this continent. Poor Alex, trapped by the African conundrum of ambition, dreams, brains, deep integrity and such limited opportunities.

Yet the most remarkable aspect of African people is fortitude. They give thanks for the very little they have or receive, and seldom regret what’s still beyond reach.

DAYS 18/ 19. TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY JANUARY 14/ 15 2019. KITALE, KENYA

We bounced and bucketed our way back around the broken roads to Kenya, another seven hours of discomfort and dust – but scenic beauty and sun. I will return, all being well, on the Mosquito in due course. The climate is so unreliable this year that my decision on route will have to be taken day by day. Rain turns that rough trail to an immense challenge of slippery mud – to be avoided on two wheels. There’s another, rather boring, route via the main African east coast to interior highway that I love to avoid. It’s double the distance as it rounds the other three quarters of Mount Elgon’s slopes to the south and west. Crowded with rotten drivers and big lumbering trucks and tankers too. Anyway, it’s a tame way to go!

Scovia. You’re never far from a banana in Uganda!

The road back to Kenya

The new carburettor diaphragm for the Mosquito awaited collection at the bus office. £116 for a tiny part. It’s now installed in the machine, along with the new cylinder, piston and associated parts. The engine is still not quite happy, but today, Thursday, I shall set off on a limited safari and see how the restored engine settles. I am already almost three weeks into my winter trip and feel the need to move around a bit.

I’m still curtailed by the performance of my injured ankle. So frustrating! But nothing I can do except wait for it to heal. This trip will be different from earlier ones. I have to contain myself in patience and limit my rides. With my big bike boots I have protection and support as much as I had with the orthopaedic boot from Torbay Hospital. But off the bike I still have to walk on rough ground and exert the muscles. Perhaps this journey will be more about returning to meet those I have met and in many cases befriended, not about seeking new horizons. I’ve really no choice but to go slower and be a bit more patient and contemplative this year! More time to meet people and find out what makes them tick, maybe.

I’m writing on Thursday morning on the shady porch. Behind me Marion listens to the most appalling repetitive engineered music as she sweeps the house – doubtless American music, not even of her culture. Adelight bends beneath one of the shady garden palms engaged in a mountainous family wash in buckets and bowls. The garden trees and plants have tripled in size since my first arrival three years ago. The garden is green from all the rains, ‘Jonathan’s House’ is now only semi visible amongst the avocados, palms and conifers of this high altitude. Despite the closeness of the Equator – just a handful of miles away – here at 1850 metres the heat of the sun is tempered and the air retains a delightful freshness. This afternoon, after our customarily simple lunch, I’ll set off on the Mosquito to Kessup, about 100 miles away. I am ‘Kessup’s Mzungu’ and will take back portrait photos from last year and stay a few days before making a round trip through some other areas I love to ride. Then I must decide just what’s possible for this safari. Will I go and explore some of Tanzania? Will I fly down to see my friends in South Africa and have a much-desired visit to lovely Lesotho? Will my foot bear up?

Time alone will tell this year…

EAST AFRICA 2020 -ONE

Before the journey begins, a brief diversion.

The complete unknown on this trip is my ability to overcome, or cope with, my injured leg. For those who don’t know, I ruptured my Achille’s tendon on September 13th. A ‘sports’ injury: playing rounders on a beach on the Isle of Mull in Wellies! Plaster cast for two weeks, and Star Trooper plastic support boot for a further seven weeks, day and night. I’ve been out of the boot for less than six weeks, and my right ankle is still very weak, with recovery time ‘from three to six MONTHS’ from removal of the boot… So I have no idea how this trip will be compromised by that injury. Only time will tell. As it is, my foot swells through the day and feels weak and rather wobbly. I am not so worried about riding my motorbike – for I will be wearing big bike boots, with as much support as the orthopaedic boot. I am more concerned how I will cope walking on uneven surfaces off the bike.

So how this trip will play out, I have no idea. Only time will tell. At present my foot swells and the ankle is weak and sore.

DAY 1. SATURDAY DECEMBER 28th 2019. UTRECHT. NETHERLANDS

It’s such a joy to keep in touch with old friends. Especially old friends with whom I shared the best weeks of my life. Tonight I am with Marti in Utrecht, one of my three companions from that life-changing first crossing of the Sahara, back in 1987. On Monday, I will be with Rico, another of our foursome of desert adventurers.

For those weeks really did change my life; Rico’s too: our first experience of the continent of Africa, that has become such an important influence in our lives. The continent that I am approaching for another footloose safari until late March.

It’s always a bonus when I can book my flights through Amsterdam to give me a night’s stop-over to visit Marti and his wife Marta and three delightful daughters. This is a brief stay, arriving mid-evening and flying out again at noon tomorrow. Kindly facilitated by Marti driving to and from Schipol airport for me.

These trips have become a habit! This is the eighth winter running that I have got out of Britain’s drear, damp darkness. It’s a relief to be on my way, the lists either complete or abandoned now. Different concerns ahead. Different pleasures too.

Especially when it means temporary divorce from my increasingly populist ‘culture’ as it races to the bottom, vulgarity legitimised. No less than FIVE books on the WH Smith ‘best sellers’ shelf at the airport contained the coyly asterisked word f**k n their titles. On the flight to Amsterdam, children fought over their iPads and were abused by irritated parents in similar vocabulary. Sometimes I feel prudish to be offended by the lack of imagination that causes this aggressive offensiveness.

Roll on Africa and the ‘dodgy places’ that so many people imagine I visit. Try Bristol Airport if you want dodgy places at New Year holiday time. An ugly exposure of the underbelly of British – or Brutish – ‘culture’. Thankfully no hen or stag parties off to vomit in European capitals today. They probably went yesterday. In past months of multiple dentistry visits I have come to know how the Poles, a quite conservative nation, look upon many British visitors…

Marti scrapes off the ice before we drive to Schipol. A thing of the past for a few weeks, for me at least!

DAY 2. SUNDAY DECEMBER 29TH 2019. NAIROBI. KENYA

My flight to Nairobi and back is the cheapest of my life. Shortly after my return from Kenya last March, I was asked to go to South Africa to consult on a new museum to be built in the Drakensburg Mountains, the same range that hold up my world favourite, Lesotho. My friend Mike is project manager and wanted my take on the plans so far. “We can’t afford to pay you any fees, this is South Africa! But we’ll pay all your expenses if you’d like to come out for a week’s holiday with Yvonne and I?” Well, that was good enough for me! I’d see my old friends. I booked flights to Durban and set off ten days after I’d flown north from Nairobi.

My flight in early April was delayed out of Bristol when the rear door of the aircraft wouldn’t close properly. At last we left for Amsterdam, four hours late. Schipol airport was in chaos, with strong gales and a runway closed for maintenance. I waited most of the afternoon – happily in the lounge – to be rebooked on flights the next day and was then ferried to a decent KLM hotel for the night. Meanwhile, I had a hotel booking at the airport hotel in Johannesburg as I was to arrive late in the evening and leave for the final flight to Durban in the morning. Of course, I had to book that for the next night too. When I got home, I emailed KLM asking if they would refund the £85 for my no-show hotel reservation. You may imagine my delight when I received a voucher, valid for 12 months, for £689! An EU law that makes provision for flights delayed beyond a certain limit. (‘Bollocks to Brexit’ – public vulgarity that I consider somewhat more justified than ‘f**k’ book titles!).

My flights to Nairobi and back have cost me £1.46! And remember, Mike’s project had paid for that flight to South Africa. In effect, I got fees after all.

In the light of that bargain, I spent a few air miles on an ideal seat: an exit row where I can put my damaged foot up on the emergency slide container on the inside of the aircraft door. I also spent £55 on a hotel opposite the small airfield from which I depart for Kitale tomorrow morning.

So here I find myself in a rather smart hotel three minutes from the airfield. I chuckled to see how my travels have sometimes changed, for my taxi, laboriously haggled for from the main international airport, pulled into a glittering portico beside marble steps, potted palm trees and uniformed concierges to open my door, a sprawling marble tiled lobby and a reception desk thirty feet long. I’ve a decent room on the first floor and am about to sleep under a sheet and blanket with the windows open to the pleasant night. This hotel is owned, my charming taxi driver, George, told me, by the vice president of the country himself, doubtless laundering a few of the corrupt millions these crooks manoeuvre out of the nation’s economy. And thereby hangs a small disappointment tonight – when I discovered that Kenya has reprinted its banknotes in a sudden attempt to stamp out the trade in illegal money, rendering my £70 kept since March, as useless as scrap paper! Oh, the joys of African travel. Oh well, if it cost some of the rogues their Swiss pensions, all well and good.

The Alps and Dolomites in a crystal clear sky were wondrous as we flew south at 35,000 feet at 621mph in a brand new aircraft, a 787-10 Dreamliner, of which KLM took delivery on December 22nd, the cabin attendant told me. After several hundred flights, there’s still some magic that enchants. Crumpled snow and shadows, the glare of the high altitudes, clouds hanging in some of the deep shadowed valleys, the dazzling brilliance of the searchlight of the sun above a gloriously designed wing. A short while later, a wonderful sunset as we flew above the African continent that’s been so much part of my life these past three decades.

And now, shortly after midnight, I shall sleep once again on African soil.

DAY 3. MONDAY DECEMBER 30TH 2019. KITALE. KENYA

Travel frustrations, of which there can be many in Africa, are made insignificant by the smiles of Kenyans. On arrival at the small airport to check in, it transpired that the Kitale travel agent had booked me on a flight TO Nairobi, not the one FROM Nairobi to Kitale. So the plane had gone and I was stranded in Nairobi. I know too well that there’s no point in frustration and irritation. The only option is to smile and find a solution. A long walk to another airline office found me a flight to Eldoret in the mid afternoon.

Everyone was sympathetic and cheerful. It was difficult not to join in and smile. Everyone greets, shakes hands, welcomes and expresses such goodwill. Life in Africa is made easy by this interaction. It’s largely this attitude that brings me back year after year. Counter clerks, Jane and Sheila, accompanied me about their offices, organised a ride for me and collected my bag from the first airline half a mile across the airfield, looked after me and made my day bright. All it takes from me is reciprocal smiles.

So I landed in Eldoret, forty five or so miles from Kitale at almost five in the afternoon, not in time for breakfast, as planned. Adelight meanwhile had arranged a ride for me in a car of the new charter car service to bring me a couple of hours from airport to home, and the warmest of welcomes from this, my Kenyan family, as darkness gathered in the mild evening. It’s a delight to be back amongst my good friends, treated like a brother and uncle and companion. It hardly feels as if I left.

Maybe smiles and relaxed discussion will allow me to change my flight payment to my return instead. One thing I do know is that argument will get me nowhere!

DAY 4. TUESDAY DECEMBER 31st 2019. KITALE. KENYA

Another year ends in Africa. When I asked what were our plans for the last evening of 2019 there was a slight embarrassed pause. It appeared it depended on me. This has been a lean year in the household, with Rico having almost no contracts as the main wage earner. It’s expensive, caring for all these young women – school fees, food, subsistence and all. They are all uncomplaining and accustomed to privation. So Christmas has been a low key family gathering.

We all saw in the year together tonight at the old Kitale Club, that provides a huge buffet and disco in marquees on the edge of the golf greens. Adelight, Rico, Scovia, Marion, Bo, Shamilla and little Maria. The girls enjoy this night out, celebrating with an uncommon glass of wine and meeting their friends. It’s a busy night, and while Rico and I may despise the raucous disco, it’s a night for them. And I am happy to share my time with these lovely young people. Happy indeed.

In Totnes it’s 7 degrees, cloudy and 50% chance of rain. In Kitale as I write this morning it’s a bright sunny 25 degrees to start 2020.

DAYS 5-8. SATURDAY JANUARY 4th 2020. KITALE. KENYA

And now four more days have passed. Pleasantly but unremarkably, enjoying the calm life of this true family. Some of the girls are related in the most tenuous ways, but together they accept and form a close family unit, loving, sharing and content. They share out household duties with no discord. They sweep and clean, do vast family washes in buckets in the garden, care for little Maria, wash up from extended meals and share the cooking and preparation with Adelight. They do it all with a goodwill I seldom see in Western children. They all choose to sleep together in one somewhat chaotic room on two large beds, mixing and matching their wardrobe and belongings. The extended family is such an admirably adaptable unit. It accepts white uncles with the same facility as various visitors.

The days pass quietly. I am pacing myself for these first weeks. My ankle grows daily stronger and the propensity to swell reduces. I do my exercises in the hope of being able to soon ride my piki-piki once again. At present that resides in Rico’s big garage, lifted on a steel box as he prepares the new piston and cylinder that I carried with me. I’m happy for his attention to my wheels. They have been bodged, using Chinese parts and bits and pieces; worked on by multiple mechanics – probably better than many, but without the knowledge and expertise of Rico’s long experience and orderly European ways. After his ministrations I will feel more confident in my little motorbike than I have for the past three years. Some weeks ago he sent me a list of parts to source, which I procured online from Devon, original parts that will be so much more reliable than the assorted Chinese spares of the various African mechanics.

The sun shines down. We eat. We converse. Adelight is happy to have her Scrabble partner once again. We shop – an experience that I quite enjoy with Adelight. One I hate and despise at home. How odd that is! With Adelight it has an element of novelty – and she knows half Kitale, which makes it a congenial exercise with plenty of people-watching for me. Meanwhile, we tinker with the motorbike and I sleep and dream deeply in my cool ‘Jonathan’s House’ out in the garden beneath the avocado tree. Life is relaxed and I am sure that with this calm, stress-free atmosphere my foot will be restored quite soon. The warmth and sun help, and so does wearing only flip-flop sandals. As soon as I put on my walking shoes and socks, my foot swells.

DAY 12. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 8TH 2019. KITALE, KENYA

You can see that I am forced to take the beginning of this journey a little slower and more relaxedly than my usual energetic fashion. I am now just eight weeks into the recovery period – that may take six months before normal use of my ruptured Achille’s. It’s been a time to enjoy the family. It’s very easy, and my enforced calm is easier for having an unarguable reason.

Yesterday, after rather more swelling than usual on Monday, (perhaps caused by a slight localised trauma when I stepped awkwardly on a stone in the morning) I asked Adelight to take me to consult a doctor. I just needed to ask someone who might know, whether the edema was a natural result of the recovery and why, despite the tendon now having obviously healed, I have a lot of soreness beneath my ankle. We went to the Galilee Health Centre on the edge of town. There, said Adelight who knows just about everyone in Kitale, was the senior doctor of the region. The health centre is modern, single storey, of the usual style, including wooden doors that have warped in the Kitale climate, never to fit their frames again. The customary whispering receptionist took my details. I wonder why it is considered a mark of respect to murmur in a show of privacy? Thankfully, the doctor, after waiting an hour, was a cheerful, forthright man, large and blunt.

“On September 13th, I ruptured my Achille’s and I still get plenty of swelling and I wanted to ask if that is to be expected?”

“You can walk,” observed Dr Kassembeli correctly. “At you age you should be happy it is mending!”

“But I don’t feel that old!” Of course, in Africa septuagenarians are a small portion of the populous. Seventy is considered ‘old’.

“Ah, so you are 30 but with an extra 40 years’ experience!”

Well, as I walked to town, where Adelight was doing one of her endless shops, a mile or so away, in the warm sun, I chuckled at the doctor’s straightforwardness. There’s no place for vanity in Africa. He prescribed an ointment that will help the edema and packed me off. Twenty four more people waited outside his ill-fitting door as I scraped it closed across the terrazzo floor tiles.

The consultation cost £11.70 and the ointment a further £8.25. “It’d better be good!” I exclaimed to the pharmacist, surprised at the cost of a tube of gunk. Made in Italy, with precious little of the high cost benefitting any African economies.

****

As of this afternoon, my blue Mosquito almost runs again. Rico, the best engineer of my acquaintance, especially in Africa where one must create any missing parts, has rebuilt the engine. I brought with me a new cylinder, piston, rings, timing chain and various required parts. At 4.45 the engine fired back to life, sounding better than for many a kilometre. It remains for me to test ride, but a passing shower has delayed my first motorbike ride since September 5th until tomorrow.

For now, I enjoy the warmth and love of this true ‘family’.

Rico and I met 33 years ago on January 6th!

DAY 14. FRIDAY JANUARY 10TH 2019. KITALE, KENYA

Fourteen days already. I haven’t stirred much from the bosom of the family. It’s interesting how the past four months have taught me some patience – not normally one of my qualities! Being ‘grounded’ for so many weeks, almost literally anchored to the spot (the spot being Rock Cottage, Harberton) by a weighty orthopaedic boot gave me no choice but to settle back and for once let nature take its course. It seems finally to be doing so. Yesterday afternoon I rode the little blue Mosquito, my small Suzuki DR 200cc motorbike, now veteran of three long journeys, for the first time. Rico completed the restoration works with about half a new engine. I bought oil and at last we were able to start the engine and for me to take a test ride. Despite attempting to kick start – using my injured leg – and doing plenty of exercises through the day, the swelling last night was decreasing. Maybe the Kitale doctor’s expensive ointment does help after all.

Before I can set off on the Mosquito I need to procure a new carburettor diaphragm. Such things can only be found in Nairobi, where the Suzuki dealer proudly claims to have been representing the company since 1959 and in the business of motorcycles since 1921. I am, however, shocked to find that it’s going to cost £116! More than the cost of half a new engine that I brought with me. Huh. Running a motorbike is something of a luxury way to travel. Worth it for those who are obsessed by independence and the ability to go where the whim takes us though.

Tomorrow we will all go – in Rico’s Pajero 4X4 – on my favourite road in East Africa, to Sipi, Uganda for a few days to visit my other family in the region. It’ll be something of an adventure for the girls – Scovia and Marion – who haven’t been over the border before.

On our return I shall begin my 2020 safari.

Shamilla