EAST AFRICA SAFARI 2017 – SIX

DAY 36 FRIDAY 13th JANUARY 2017. ELDAMA RAVINE, KENYA

300 kilometres (190 miles) is TOO far to ride that pokey piki-piki! Particularly in the highlands of Kenya, which are cold just now. Not cold to wander in the sun, but bloody chilly on my chest on the bike. By evening I could feel the tightness it caused, despite my scarf and jersey and at the end, my waterproof jacket. I hope I don’t get pneumonia! Of course, it’s the altitude that does it. I have spent much of the day up around seven thousand feet, dropping down to the Rift Valley in the middle of my ride and climbing back to the highlands on the western side. I didn’t mean to ride so far but it was about 3.30 that I passed through Eldama Ravine, the town in which I find myself tonight. The next townships were another forty or so kilometres away, so I decided to make for them and find somewhere to sleep. Imagine my frustration on getting there and asking some friendly folk where I could find a guest house (no good asking for ‘hotels’, for in Kenya they are usually small drinking bars), to be told I would have to ride another 64 kilometres to Eldoret (the town I don’t want to see again, you may remember), or backtrack 40kms to Eldama Ravine.

Fortunately the road back to Eldama was the most delightful and scenic of my day! A good blacktop sweeping through lovely thick forests of dark green foliage and over hills of small shambas and meadows, through a few scattered rural roadside villages and with some fine extensive views of forested mountainsides. One doesn’t imagine Africa like this. I can easily see why the colonials wanted to settle here. It’s like the Highlands of Scotland, only with sun – endless, searing sun. Had it been the tedious bush country of the valley, I’d have been pretty pissed off to think I had to ride those twenty five miles three times.

The night was cold! Huddled under a blanket as thick as a couple of carpets, not unlike sleeping under paving slabs actually, I kept well under the covers all night, even with the badly silenced motorbikes, truck horns, wailing metal gates, the usual random cockerels and dogs (in the town centre), and the thumping bass of the music from bars, pressed to a slither by the weight above me.

It was almost ten before I rode out of Nyahururu, missing my direction – again – and heading east rather than north. Well, I’d decided just to have a saunter some kilometres away from Nyahururu before riding back into the valley and beginning my journey back towards Kitale and eventually Uganda. As it was I missed the Rimuruti forest and saw a distant, hazy view of shy Mount Kenya instead. It’s unusual to see the mountain except in the very early light. Chilled, I turned around after an hour or so and headed back to Nyahururu for a warming pot of coffee at the Thompson’s Falls Lodge, then rode back down into the valley, braving nasty Nakuru once again, with its crazy traffic and endless speed humps.

Thirty or forty kilometres north of that horrible main road across Kenya, I turned west towards Eldama, now warm and sunburned at the lesser altitude. The trouble is, the chill creeps up on you as you rise gently back into the highlands. Happily, the scenery improves as well.

Passing through somewhat busier Eldama Ravine, I was soon out into the most lovely stretch of road, the finest yet. I’ll see it three times too…

*

Back in Eldama at almost six o’clock, I began to search for a place to sleep. Oddly, there are several hotels advertised on signboards by the junction, but not one of them was visible, so I rode into the one that WAS obvious. Well, being about four stories tall and sprawling just below the town centre, it was unmissable! How do these bizarre, grandiose, gloomy, fifty-plus roomed hotels keep going? There appear to be few or no guests. My room has been so little used in recent weeks and months that the water had evaporated from the U bend in the lavatory! I have an extraordinary sort of nylon-draped four poster bed, but damp patches creeping all up the walls. There’s a balcony, but it looks over a filthy back lane full of plastic bags and over a dusty zinc roof, behind which the hills stretch away to the hazy sunset, covered in scruffy shambas and compounds.

Sonya, the receptionist with a broken arm, was welcoming and showed me some rooms and where to put my bike, outside reception under the eyes of the askaris. Freddie is the askari, a tall fellow with the friendliest of smiles. He will sit by the gate all night, my motorbike under his personal guard, he assures me, as the music blares from a bar across the street. I KNEW I was wise to ask Sonya for a room at the back! It’s Friday night and the disco bars followed the moans and groans from a fairly rare – in this part of Kenya at least – muezzin at the local mosque. Wrapped now in a down jacket, Sonya sits at the dark wood and gloomy brown-painted reception desk, Freddie under the grandiose archway of the hotel entrance. As for me, I have a ridiculous gossamer-draped bed with the wildest gold brocade and nylon lacy frills! Beneath the flouncy counterpane are the same ten-ton synthetic blankets of last night’s torture rack. The sheer pretentiousness fights with the gloom of the plywood veneered woodwork, the freezing ceramic tiles, the ripped net curtains and the stained and dingy paintwork. I love the style of Africa, all incongruity, and ultimately risible. Well, at £10 B&B, can I complain that the decor is a bit Soviet? The bed’s huge and firm, the blankets no doubt like a ton of bricks even if it’s all got brothel taste! The bed is placed with its fixed canopy so far across the otherwise empty room, that you can’t open the door to the balcony without sidling between the bed and window. Haha. it makes me laugh at the end of a weary, windswept, chill riding day!

*

There has been no internet for the past week wherever I went, but tonight the cheerfully chubby waitress in the hotel dining room, a space of astonishing dreariness under low wattage bulbs, volunteered the fact that I could enjoy ‘chatting’ as there was internet. I didn’t disabuse her that ‘chatting’ isn’t really my thing, but I was finally able to upload another chunk of this journal and very tediously, over three Tuskers, to put up some pictures of the past week and all the lovely people I have been privileged to meet.

*

Kenya grows some of the world’s best coffee, yet they drink weak and washy, crappy instant junk! Sonya promises me a fine breakfast – in the murkily dismal dining room, I suppose. Tonight I ate goat liver curry: not bad at all. Now it’s time to heave the glittery gilded counterpane from the bed and delve beneath the covers.

My god! The pink peony-covered synthetic blanket is a force to be reckoned with! Hahaha!!!! I love the contradictions of Africa! Music pounds like a steam hammer from a discotheque downstairs – I doubt it’ll keep me awake for long – as my muscles – and my brain – finally begin to relax. Another day in Africa ends in a kitsch brocade fake four poster in a cheap hotel …

DAY 37 SATURDAY 14th JANUARY 2017. KESSUP, KENYA

The noisiest hotel in Africa? Well, probably not, but that discotheque lasted until 4.00am, pounding and hammering through my ear plugs as I sweated beneath the immensity of the florid peonies. I dreamed strange dreams, broken into short stretches when sheer exhaustion made me fall into unsatisfying sleep. The Chambai Springs Hotel – ‘Where comfot meets demand’. (Sic) Hmmm.

It reminded me, lying there, the bed almost physically pulsing with the colossal noise, of another occasion, back on my first African venture in 1988. Rico was there and will remember!

My good friend Barbara joined me via Aeroflot in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, after I had crossed the Sahara that first time, and she rode pillion on the Elephant through Ghana and Ivory Coast, sharing the worst hotels of her life. It was years later that she admitted to me her horror at the ‘better class’ hotel I proudly told her I had booked us into for her benefit, when I picked her up at the airport. It did, admittedly, double as a brothel! Only in my terms was it relatively up-market!

For a few days, we joined Rico in the old Land Rover, leaving Marti and Liesbeth in Ouaga. In Bobo Dialasso, we were persuaded by a tout to check into a cheap hotel. He assured us it was a quiet place. Haha! Soon after we settled in the disco started through the wall. The place shook with noise such that we couldn’t speak. We decided to walk out, packing our bags and finding Rico outside. It sparked an incident with the hotel keeper… He was irate that we were leaving without paying. We insisted that the description of his hotel had been totally false. It was European righteous indignation and stubbornness against African greed for the West African Francs he said we owed him. It escalated to a wonderfully comic interview at the police station, all done with the straightest of faces. The police chief was called to arbitrate, arriving with his gun and wearing an Elvis tee shirt. We sat straight-backed and offended in his scruffy, dusty office with its broken furniture. I remember telling him that ‘madame’ should never be asked to suffer the indignity of that hotel, that it was an insult to her status and had shocked her deeply. ‘Madame’ sat acting stiffly offended throughout the interview. I think we compromised by paying a small sum for the washing I had already done in the hotel. With fulsome thanks to the police chief and bursting with laughter that we did not dare to let rip until out of sight, we drove away into the bush to sit on the roof of the Land Rover drinking precious whisky that I suppose Barbara had brought and sleeping on the roof that night. How we laughed. So many stories, sometimes sparked by incidents 30 years later.

Alone at 3.36 in Eldama Ravine, buzz-bombed by mosquitoes, face pressed into a glitzy brocade frilly pillow, flattened by the weight of the synthetic blanket of rampant peonies, it wasn’t such fun. I slipped in and out of sleep and tonight I am weary, but have come back to the quiet chalet with the extensive view over the Kerio Valley, the deep silence and the absolute peace where I can sleep soundly. Last night was not tranquil.

*

Breakfast was, as Sonya had promised, vast – an odd mix of African and European, cereal biscuits in hot milk, local millet porridge, a fried egg and samosa, banana and orange, and floppy spongy bread. By ten I was on my way, filling up with petrol and asking advice on roads and by so doing, finding that I didn’t have to ride last night’s last road a third time. Four kilometres from Eldama Ravine, a quiet road travelled north back towards Kabarnet on its high ridge, winding first through parched semi-desert of eye-dazzling brightness, tall cacti and succulents and sparse acacias amidst black rocky outcrops. There was almost no traffic, always a relief in Kenya, but some evil potholes.

There are some journeys that you are quite happy to string out – not hard, riding a mere 200 cubic centimetres of engine up mountainous slopes to almost 8000 feet. Today I rode from cactus to conifer, back to cactus and on again to conifer. But the most lovely part of my ride was from a small village called Tenges past another remote village called Sacho, on high ridges. Some parts of this country are astonishingly beautiful, these rumpled mountains covered in tall creeper-hung trees as the road, much of the way today a tarred surface, with just a few miles of deteriorated rocky track through the loveliest part of the ride, wound its way upwards. My smile spread and I felt free, a sense of limitless possibility under the Equatorial sun amidst such beauty as few people get to see – and those who live in it probably see as inconvenient and restrictive. It’s for this that I come and ride my motorbikes around Africa, for these brief spells of complete contentment that I am here and can just BE. Much of the way, even when the tinny little bike would have gone faster, I was riding at 20mph for the sheer joy of the magnificence about me. For a few miles I wandered along a ridge, no more than a 100 metres wide, at 2400 metres high, glimpsing plunging forested depths into the great African Rift Valley on each side through the veil of woodland. It was wonderful, worth coming all this way to experience and enjoy.

They don’t see many mzungus up there on those very quiet roads high in the mountain fastness. One bewildered child threw herself off the road and disappeared precipitously down the embankment! Others looked in horror. Some adults just looked surprised and wondered how I came to be there. I am so glad I was.

Stopping for tea – the coffee is too awful, so I have taken to imbibing ‘mixed tea’, a reasonably reviving mixture of milk and tea boiled together – in Kabarnet, I then took off on another side road hoping for the magic I had just left. But that road, although reminding me so much of the approaches to some of the Pakistani hill stations in the Hindu Kush, winding between tall, old established forests, hadn’t the appeal of the Sacho road. I turned about and descended into the Kerio Valley again, on the coiling and winding main road, the heat increasing with every mile, then back up to the Kessup plateau where I was so contented a few days ago. I passed a local natural sight, a narrow gorge about 50 or 60 feet deep, a mere ten feet wide, through which runs part of the Kerio River. Sadly, it was mainly memorable as a reminder that so few people on this continent take their rubbish home with them. Drifts of plastic bottles eddied in the shallows, wrappers and plastic bags decorated the rocks and acacia trees, cans, peelings and filth peppered the dusty ground. The crocodiles below swim in garbage. There are no – or few – rubbish collections in most of Africa and much of the filth just slowly breaks down, enters the food chain, strangles cattle and is decomposed by the dry heat and the sun. Natural sights and attractions are usually thus disfigured…

*

Riding down the pitted and rocky track to the Lelin Campsite and Resort – a grand name for this collection of small chalet rooms and parched grass – I met my friend William, delighted to see me returning. We already arranged to walk in the village again tomorrow. As the afternoon and evening progressed, clouds rolled in above the escarpment from the west and now the sky is veiled and heavy. “Will it rain?” I asked Mercy as she brought my supper (the inevitable ugali and fried cabbage yet again). “Yes, in three days to come! Promise!” She seemed very sure.

It’s Saturday night and there are a few other guests so I don’t suppose I will enjoy the ultimate peace that I had here earlier in the week. Unfortunately, few people in Africa ever shut a door they can slam. But after last night’s incredible cacophony, a few doors slamming will be luxury. After a satisfying day with some fine scenery, I am yawning at 8.30.

DAY 38 SUNDAY 15th JANUARY 2017. KESSUP, KENYA

The community of Kessup has taken on a special place in my African affections. Today, again, I have been welcomed to the heart of the village, met and greeted dozens, been invited into compounds and looked about farms, drunk local home brew and even illegal local spirit. Everywhere I have been the target of so much warmth and cheerfulness. I suppose I have to just say it again: in a land in which people have so little in material terms, they have fortitude, friendship and human kindness beyond that which I ever find in ‘richer’ places, seldom, in fact, outside Africa. Why else do I keep returning?

Breakfast was a bit late; Chesoli and Vicky were cooking in the smoky kitchen hut when I went to investigate. Chesoli had decided to make pancakes and tomato and onion salad. So William was waiting by the time I was ready to start the day, happily greeting me like an old friend. And in William I really have made a friend, much more than just the business arrangement with which it started out. Over three days of walking and talking we have formed a bond that has been most enjoyable. I think we recognised a certain integrity and straightforwardness in each other that we both appreciated. He is obviously popular in the community, an honest, upright man, satisfied with his life here. He rose to be an inspector in the CID and deputy chief of the Flying Squad before his early retirement. He explained his slightly lop-sided smile today: a violent attack on the side of his face that left him with a permanent injury. His experiences amongst the low life of Kenya had a lasting effect on him until he could take no more and retired to his small shamba and its quiet life. He is immensely proud of his daughter, Lydia, now studying nursing in Perth. He and his wife raised over £12,000 to enable her to go. I complimented William on his foresight in sending an African woman for training. “Enable the women to change this continent!” I sent Lydia some pictures by email yesterday and we even spoke to her this afternoon – in Perth, Australia, as we sat on a rocky, rural embankment in Kessup, Kenya. How small the world has become.

Everywhere I go, however meagre the surroundings, everyone clasps a mobile phone. There are now 650 million mobiles in Africa, more than in Europe or North America. It’s made a vast difference to life on this continent, which went straight from virtually no communications directly to mobiles, skipping the landline phase almost entirely. Calls are cheap (although devices are quite expensive) and I noticed a reduction in the old acceptance of ‘Africa Time’ over the past decade or so. Now, if someone doesn’t turn up at the appointed hour, you phone them.

*

We walked further afield, to the south side of the village today, wandering the small fields on dusty paths between shambas and compounds. Most people know cheerful William, so they are comfortable to meet his white man. Who knows how many folk I greeted today? I know I took 65 pictures. We met Moses, wheelchair bound – and imagine that down these remote rocky tracks hundreds of yards from the road, rutted tracks, hills, rocks… He was involved in an accident in 2004 in a lorry on the road that sweeps and twists down into the valley from Kabarnet across the Kerio Valley from here. He suffered a serious spinal injury and was confined to a Nairobi hospital for a year. “How ever did you afford that? I don’t suppose you have insurance?” It seems the community came together to support him. Now he dreams of a more robust wheelchair. William likes to visit Moses, a reasonably young fellow trapped in a simple compound on a slope of the valley by his disability. I asked William if there were no disability organisations to help Moses get a new chair and practical help. “Yes, but the corruption…” was William’s only reply. Presumably Moses doesn’t have the resources to work the system. This is a deeply corrupt country at every level. Later we met a local ‘success’, (his own description) a man who works in Eldoret city as ‘Procurement Officer’ for the local authority. From the immensity of the expensive new house he is building in Kessup, and from William’s expression, it is obvious that his ‘procurement’ enhances his personal income to a vast extent. Every level of the infrastructure of Kenya is riddled with corruption, frequently a blatant systematic corruption that officials see as normal, even a source of pride. It starts from the very top and everyone below, seeing those above them abusing the system, joins in. It frustrates so much development in Africa – and diverts so much foreign aid.

From Moses’ home we wandered through narrow tracks, greeting and shaking hands with many people, to the small farm of Peter, over 80 years old and still working hard, growing coffee seedlings that are transported to the Central Region of Kenya to the coffee plantations around Mount Kenya itself. He has a water pipe from far up the escarpment where we walked the other day. A small sprinkler irrigates his seedlings in neat rows behind fences of spilt timbers. Nearby he grows some coffee for his own use, the trees over 30 years old. A sprightly man, he is obviously a good farmer making, William said, good money from his seedlings, that take about eight months to grow.

Onward we meandered, to a large, tidy compound, a couple of largish zinc houses with banana trees around and thick smoke exiting through the thatch of a white plastered round hut. Something I fail completely to understand is the lack of chimneys in Africa! How stupid can it be to suffer the respiratory and eye complaints instead of constructing the simplest of chimneys! It’s crazy! And it’s throughout Africa… In the smoky hut a hot fire burned beneath a highly illegal still producing ‘wirigi’ a spirit from maize, wheat and sugar, of indeterminate strength, that would, for me, have been improved by a dash of tonic and a slice of lemon at 11.00am! Those around me threw up their hands at the idea! A clear gin-like liquid, it wasn’t bad, with a slight corn flavour. Drunk from enamel mugs, it didn’t have a lot of style about it, but the ambience made up in welcome what it lacked in tone as I sat on a low stool, my feet in the dust laughing with the family and sipping my illicit hooch.

Later, under a zinc shelter, we drank bulsa, the local home brew beer from maize and wheat also, from plastic drugs containers, in happy company with Miriam, a garrulous matron with a big laugh and her pretty 16 year old daughter Chelacut, “My last- born!”; with Alex, Jackson, Victor and Jonathan, and with Joel, my ‘age-mate’ in Africa-speak. Laughter and goodwill abounded again.

Later still, William and I sat at the Rock bar once again, beer for me, ‘KK’ for him (Kenya Kane, a gin-like spirit). We were joined by the local chief, who was dogmatic and drunk, spoiling William and my conversation somewhat, a typical politician – and his post is a trained government position – he wanted to talk at us rather than join the roaming conversation we were enjoying. I have so very much enjoyed William’s company, a thoroughly decent man of great kindness, integrity and charm. I promised I will return before leaving Africa, if I can. He was quite upset and embarrassed when I paid him the small sum with which I retained him on the other two occasions. I had to couch it as some money to have KK to drink my health when I am gone. Next time, he assures me, I will NOT pay him as we are now friends, not employer and employee! He has been delightful company and we bonded very easily and equally, recognising certain characteristics in one another that crossed all the cultural barriers. His English is excellent too, with only some of his Kenyan English accent confounding me now and again. I tried to explain to him how the sing song accent in Kenya often inserts extra syllables: myself becoming ‘myseluf’, and comfortable becoming, slightly confusingly, ‘comerfortable’. With the frequently very softly spoken people I meet here, it makes conversation difficult. For instance, I reckoned to William afterwards that I managed to get about forty percent of the Chief’s conversation… Not easy.

From the bar we walked back in the late afternoon towards the campsite, calling to visit the neighbours, where pretty Chemu, a good friend of William’s Lydia, bounded out to tell him that Lydia had messaged from Australia that she had received pictures from a tourist of her father and grandfather. William was excited and insisted we spoke to her in Perth there and then by Watsap. While that went on, I enjoyed the company of Ellie, a lecturer in medical something or other at Iten, up on the mountaintop above us, and her smart, engineering graduate daughter, Chemu and Chemu’s step sister, Anita, in bright orange and yellow clothes washing clothes in a blue bowl on the green embankment. Such lovely young women, smiling and laughing as they did the endless chores that an African household with no labour saving devices demands. Ellie then gathered me an armful of ‘black nightshade’, a popular and expensive local vegetable, from her rocky fields. I am convinced it is of the same family as deadly nightshade: the leaves look very similar and the flower, although white not purple, is formed the same way too. Maybe the old colonials saw the likeness and that’s how it got its name?

*

With William’s company and the silent sleep of this place, a couple of hundred yards from the road, it has been a fine place to find. Sometimes on my African travels I find such congenial, welcoming spots and enjoy to stay a few days. Lelin Campsite has been one of those. I hope I will come back for a day or two at the end of my safari. But for now, it’s back to Kitale and onward to Uganda!

DAY 39 MONDAY 16th JANUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

Phase one of my journey is done. I rode back to Kitale, my temporary home base, this afternoon and will stay until Wednesday morning when I leave for Uganda. A friendly welcome from Adelight at the now empty house and later congenial conversation with Cor over beers on the stoep. We are only Adelight, Cor, little Shamilla and Yvonne the new house girl, thankfully a bit less overwhelmed and settling in. Moses, the new askari, is diligent and friendly, a huge improvement on Victor who, while friendly, had no initiative whatsoever and only did as instructed and no more – and often not even that. Moses seems to be keeping the compound cleaner and tidier. He still sits and gazes into space, but I know this is a truly African ability.

*

The ride back was about as unexciting as the ride to Iten. Traffic, however, is mercifully light on these back roads. Sadly, the speed humps are just as tedious. Kenya is a land of many thousands of schools – frequently boarding schools – each of which, strung out along remote country roads necessitates several humps. Then every small village has similar hazards. It is so easy to lose concentration and hit an unnoticed hump. So far, it has happened only once in my first 1400 kilometres. I have to remain vigilant… Well, watchfulness is required anyway, with the sheep, goats, wandering cows, millions of overloaded small motorbikes, the matatus and pedestrians!

Iten seems to be a place where runners train. Riding away from the town I passed many slim, athletic looking men – and a couple of women – in training. It reminded me that Kenyans are some of the world’s fastest runners with their Olympic champions. Training at these altitudes seems to produce a significant advantage and I spotted in Iten evidence that white runners train there too.

Leaving the campsite, I made my goodbyes to William, Chesoli and Vicky, brief friends made on the road. Francis the mango farmer, owner of the campsite was there too. A brief conversation gave me pause to ponder on the future of this poor continent – let alone our world. His chest swelled with cocky pride as he told me, in absolute rejection of my childless state, “Well, I have seven sons!” No mention of daughters, I noted. While this mistaken belief in vast families implying strength and virility persists – in much of the world – how can the planet cope? Does Francis really believe that a mango farmer can educate seven sons, and presumably the unmentioned daughters, to a degree that development and shared wealth is possible? Don’t people connect their poverty, the lack of resources, ecological degradation, and the inequalities of their lives with their insupportably large families? Of course, the plethora of bloody churches of EVERY conceivable denomination have their blame in all this, especially the catholics, seen everywhere their message can be spread to the poorly educated. But that’s another subject that I really don’t want to sidetrack onto!

Oh well, Francis gave me a couple of very juicy mangoes…

*

Tomorrow I shall sort my very small luggage, tidy up the bike and do some travel housekeeping. Then off to Uganda! Everyone, but everyone, I meet tells me that I am going to enjoy the Ugandan people and the Rwandan countryside. Even most Kenyans seem to regard their neighbours as good people and life in Uganda as better than theirs. It bodes well!

Time and these pages will tell.

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