I’ve been trying to get this quite long episode up all day, but we’ve had a power cut for most of it! I’ll try to get some pictures up tomorrow, which takes a lot of time and power on the internet, before I head off to Uganda…
DAY 58 TUESDAY 16th JANUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA
I find myself very contented here in Kitale with my old, comfortable friend, Rico, and now with Adelight too. They make me feel very welcome and Rico and I enjoy our couple of hours drinking beer and sorting out life on the porch of an evening, when Adelight comes cheerily home from her work in her tailoring shop. Baby Maria, quite the most delightful, happy baby I have ever known, chortles and sings beside us, ever smiling. It’s very relaxing.
The bike is now ready for a longer journey: oil topped up, chain tightened, washed, new spark plug and clean air filter. My clothes and equipment are washed from the Suam to Sipi road and I am ready to set off. Some of the day, though, was spent researching Ethiopian visas online. It appears to be quite a trial, and quite a chance to even get one here in Nairobi… I may have to change my plans drastically in the coming days. Visas are given VERY grudgingly in Nairobi. Well, the best thing is to go and try first, and be prepared for a trip in Uganda and Tanzania instead! Wherever I go in these ‘shithole countries’, as the despicable Trump has called them – a description I have enjoyed in emailing my American colleagues today (!) – I shall meet people so much more worthy than anything in American politics that I will make the best of it and have an interesting time, no doubt.
The Mosquito needed a new spark plug, so I went to the Honda dealer in the town. “I need a spark plug, a D8EA… for my little Suzuki piki-piki.”
“We only sell spark plugs for Hondas,” said the woman in the shop. I wonder how anyone ever does any business here sometimes! (Just in case you don’t see the humour: spark plugs of the right size fit any machine, from generators to buses…).
So, new horizons from tomorrow. Doubtless, I will find places to go and people to meet, wherever I end up. That’s the joy of travelling: never knowing what tomorrow will bring!
DAY 59 WEDNESDAY 17th JANUARY 2017. KAPTAGAT, KENYA
Twenty miles north of the Equator, I am sitting beside an aromatic log fire in my bedroom tonight in an old colonial style guest house set in the most delightful long-established gardens. I LOVE the fact…
…and here I was called by a gentle tap to my door, with its upside down handle and lock. Outside was Ellen and one of the askaris. “Oh… I want to disturb you…” said with quiet embarrassment. “I have forgotten your name!” It’s often so charming, the way that almost no one is trained in service here. Were I staying in a much fancier hotel, I’d just be a room number – anonymous, faceless, characterless to everyone. Here I am a guest, to be cared for and about. “Jonathan, the mzungu!” I suggested, to chuckles. Just then two fellows, presumably watchmen, carefully pushed my Mosquito from the parking place and left it right outside my door. It’s very engaging, this respect, politeness and innocence of any knowledge of formal ‘customer relations’ – just human interaction and warmth…
…where was I? Loving the fact that such serendipitous things occur on my travels. I was whirring along a road, not sure which way I was pointing, so I stopped to ask a bunch of boda-boda boys if I was on the correct road. The boda-boda boys love to see my ‘big’ piki-piki (which at all of 200ccs, is a quarter the capacity of my Elephant and one sixth of my big BMW at home – but double theirs). They were stationed at the end of a red dust track to the Kaptagat Hotel. After satisfying their curiosity, I decided to investigate for a cup of tea at least. I found this delightful old colonial hotel amidst lovely greenery; had a flask of chai and enquired about rooms. It was only 3pm, early to stop, but the opportunity had just ‘happened’ and these days I follow instinct.
Ellen showed me a series of different rooms and I chose Room 2. “Everyone chooses Room 2!” For £14.70 I have a spacious room with a polished hardwood floor, a big bed with a candlewick bedspread that probably also dates from colonial times, a brick fireplace flanked by a couple of easy chairs, a bathroom and bay window. So what, there’s no running water, and it’s all just a bit faded, but a large container of hot water, heated over logs, materialised shortly after I moved in. There’s a bar – rather busy tonight, round a HUGE kind of inglenook fireplace, with boozed men, and the pungency of some very unclean bodies, presumably from the local community. It’s the usual African problem: cane spirit at 40%ABV is cheaper than beer. So I have brought my beer to my fireside. The chicken, chips and ketchup wasn’t inspired, but you can forgive a great deal for gardens and peace like this. A happy chance.
The second half of my winter safari has begun. I am on my way down to Nairobi to try my charm on the Ethiopian embassy and on the MD of Olerai Limited, who has SAID he will personally see to the reissue of a logbook for the Mosquito. It’s Wednesday and I could arrive in Nairobi tomorrow, but then I would have only Friday to try to achieve business and I know Africa well enough to know that you can’t hope to do two things in any one day, so I’ve decided to enjoy the trip and arrive on Sunday.
This part of Kenya is very fine. I rode the familiar road almost back to Kessup, that I’ve taken several times now, avoiding the extremely dangerous Nairobi to Kampala highway on which hundreds die every year, often in ghastly multiple accidents that kill busloads at a time (30-some in early December in one accident and another 40-odd in one accident just before Christmas). I rode on quiet side roads, turning right onto a dust road at Iten town and negotiating a soon to be tarred road through highlands with tall trees and small, scruffy roadside villages coated in red dust. Then I was onto a brand new road through more fine scenery, up here perhaps 7000 or 8000 feet above sea level. These roads aren’t much used: everyone slavishly sticks to the lethal highway. But I am here to enjoy and there’s no hurry. I breeze along on my small bike, seldom more than 50mph, watched by thousands; the equatorial sun beating down on my helmet and dust turning my beard red again. I leave a trail of stained towels across East Africa, because however thoroughly I wash, it’s never enough.
Tonight I’ll sleep with the embers of the sweet smelling fire dying in the wide grate. Didn’t expect THAT this morning…
DAY 60 THURSDAY 18th JANUARY 2017. KAPTAGAT, KENYA
How do I even begin to describe what I have seen today: 200 kilometres of the most remarkable landscapes; one of the most dramatic, exciting roads I have found on the continent and some of Kenya’s best scenery? The Rift Valley is one of Earth’s most impressive natural features, and it’s here on my doorstep today.
It’s not often that I find such pleasant, silent, old hotels, so I decided to stay another night in this quaint place. Pity about the food, but what the hell, the calm gardens, the deep peace of the night, the aromatic wood fire in my room, even the quirky nostalgia of a candlewick bedspread: they all said ‘stay’. I picked a round trip on my map and rode off to investigate, leaving it until 10.30 for the sun to warm these altitudes.
There’s something strange about my map. It is from National Geographic and boasts frequent updates. It suggests that a road leaves Kaptagat and drops down the steep escarpment immediately. I was surprised that such an insignificant road should be tarred, but people told me, yes, this big tar road was the way to Tenges, a small scruffy community on the other side of the Kerio Valley, a branch of the Rift Valley: the head of the same valley I view from ‘my’ room in Kessup. Oddly, the road across the valley began 15 kilometres from Kaptagat – and it certainly wasn’t tarred… Asking the boda-boda boys at an insignificant junction – onto a red gravel and rock road – they assured me THIS was the way to Tenges. But what still mystified me (wonderfully as it turned out, for all was explained six hours later), was that I STILL hadn’t seen the Rift Valley opening below me. I had ridden fifteen kilometres already. I KNEW one of Earth’s biggest natural phenomena was there somewhere, but it didn’t appear. Oh well, the boda-boda boys assured me I was going the right way, so the great valley must be somewhere ahead. I started down the rocky track.
Less than a quarter of a mile later I was thrilled by the surprise! THERE was the Rift Valley! Huge, expansive, vast, dramatic, theatrically revealed before me – and far far below me to the left. Wow! It was one of those moments that make it all worthwhile: the discomfort, the bad beer, the ughali and chicken, the latrines, the margarine, the effort, the mosquitoes, the lack of Radio Three, even the constant worry about mechanical ineptness. The Kerio Valley exploded to my left; as big a vista as you can imagine, stretching miles away to distant blue ridges on the other side, a drop of about 1500 metres plunging below me. That’s almost 4900 FEET! Almost a MILE deep! It’s staggering – and very exciting! For the next ten miles I serpentined, curled and shuddered down one of the most thrilling trails I have been privileged to find.
I could take a hundred photos – but not ONE can express the reality; the sheer exultant JOY of being there – the brilliant sun, the freshness of the air, the scents of wayside flowers, the freedom, the view, the greetings, the waves, the smiles – not least my own, spread not just across my face, but somehow through my whole body it seemed: a flow of thrill and happiness to be here, doing this, doing it NOW!
Much of the descent I undertook at not more than 15 miles an hour, a speed at which I could revel in the experience, watch the track AND the views, and just indulge in the immediate experience of dropping into the famous African Rift Valley, the colossal fracture in the earth’s crust that stretches up most of the continent (from Israel to Mozambique, they say). And here was I, inching my way down, the temperature rising with every metre I dropped, the vegetation changing, greens giving way to browns, the smile stuck to my face. People waved and gave me thumbs-up, grinned or sometimes just looked astonished and bemused at the ‘old’ daddy riding the bucking little blue bike.
In the valley bottom: by now bush country had replaced the conifers and flowers, sit the scars of a fluorspar mine, a product used in cement and construction. I passed a barrier, where a friendly guard laughed at my exclamations as he raised the steel pole. Yes, I was still on the correct road for Tenges. He pointed to a pale stripe far above on the eastern flank of the soaring escarpment. That, he said, was Tenges.
The ride up the other flank of the valley wasn’t as fine as the descent. The views were obscured by dusty undergrowth and the road harder: thick dust and pitted rockiness. It was thirty miles, twisting and turning, shaking and juddering from one rim to the other. But what a ride! I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved to reach the tarmac at Tenges, on a road I used twice last year and enjoyed – without knowing the wonders in the valley below. I turned into the straggling village and found a ‘hoteli’ for over-sweet tea and half an hour’s relaxation, watching the parochial Tenges world go by: matatus filling, boda-boda boys waiting for customers, not many of them passing through this sleepy town; being cheerfully greeted by so many and still smiling from my invigorating ride. Now all I had was many miles of tar roads, most of which I had ridden last year.
There’s a grey, potholed road, with huge almost cliched views across the distant blues of the Rift Valley, framed by that image of Africa from a million Safari brochures: the flat topped acacias, to Eldama Ravine, where I had the misfortune to stay in the noisiest hotel in Africa (and THAT’S saying something!) last January. It was Friday night and it was disco night – until 4.00am and the hotel – and my bed – literally throbbed. It’s an unattractive town, but the road back into the forested hills is one of the finest I found last safari. It sweeps through tree-covered uplands and dark coniferous forests. It’s less populated by scruffy tin and firewood villages than most roads and there are long vistas of receding hills into the distance-haze. The sun was lowering now, shadows extending: I’d been on the road a long time.
But perhaps the best was kept until last. Overtaking grinding lorries, their drivers waving at the mzungu, my road began a final climb back to the highland tops. I was approaching full circle now, to where I turned off the tarmac this morning, still then deprived of the valley I knew must be there. But now, as I climbed, the valley was magically revealed, in all its glory; my route across the valley floor visible as a curling white line. Sometimes nature can act as conjuror: now, with a breathtaking flourish, there was the aerial view I had been denied – just two kilometres further on, past my turn this morning. But how glad I was that I hadn’t seen this magnificence until the end of the day! The best kept till last.
My mechanical ineptness causes concern most of the days I am riding. I listen, unconfident, to my engine and I dread punctures. However, when I diagnose a problem correctly, I am disproportionately pleased. The Mosquito has been slightly unhappy for much of the day: I can tell instinctively now. When I stopped, the engine would cut out with a cough, and when starting, there’d be a hesitation, and the sound hasn’t been quite right. I fiddled with the tick-over screw and checked for leaks; checked the air supply wasn’t blocked… It seemed to me, in my partial ignorance, that the petrol/air mix was wrong. Stopping outside my room tonight, I got on my knees for another check – and found the choke slightly on. It hadn’t sprung back, maybe as long ago as this morning! Well, at least my diagnosis was correct.
I am back by my log fire now, pleasantly weary from an exhilarating day. They just keep coming.
DAY 61 FRIDAY 19th JANUARY 2017. NYERI, KENYA
From the characterful Kaptagat Hotel to a totally joyless guest house in Nyeri. That’s what happens when I get tired and ride too far. By the time I get to my destination, I am too weary and out of sorts to spend time looking for a place with appeal. So I find myself in a reasonably decent, clean but faceless guest house in a suburb, surrounded by residences and not very interesting. The view from the front window is of a zinc-sheet fence; from the back a concrete block wall. I should have stopped back in Nyahururu, one of the highest towns in Kenya, except that I know the accommodation options aren’t very good there either, as I searched for some time last year before finding a place with little more character than this in Nyeri… Oh well, it’s the luck of the draw: I can’t have old colonial hotels with lovely gardens every night.
It’s a mistake to ride too far: I rode almost 200 miles today, much too much on the little Mosquito. The last ride, the one from high Nyahururu, seemed to go on for ever, across high plains and rolling hills, past the Aberdares Mountains and forests off to the south. I passed ‘Treetops’, one of the most exclusive game reserve hotels, famous, of course, for the accession of Princess Elizabeth to Queen, while she was there on a state visit when her father died. These game reserves and parks are accessible from Nairobi within less than a day, so see some of the more upmarket safari guests. In the other direction, lost today in haze, squats Mount Kenya, second highest African peak. This is a lovely area: a mixture of heavy agriculture, forest and large reservations. The road from Nyahururu is big and fast – unless you have a mere 200ccs of engine to power you up the long hills, even more so when you climb up again from the Rift Valley at chaotic Nakuru, a busy town where I met the ghastly highway from Nairobi to Kampala – fortunately only for two miles of roadwork madness and traffic anarchy and free for all lawlessness, before I turned north again onto the steep climb to Nyahururu’s 2370 metres (7700 feet or so).
My day began slowly. The organisation of the kitchen at the oddly attractive Kaptagat Hotel is not the best. The first night I ordered chicken, chips and vegetables – no vegetables; the next night I ordered chicken and rice and vegetables – and got chips again, although I DID get the vegetables; this morning I asked for eggs, sausage and toast (as I had yesterday morning) – no eggs and soggy bread! But it was pleasant sitting in the warmth of the sun as I waited for the air to lose the chill of the morning when I rode away. But one of today’s problems was that I was just slightly chilled for the entire ride. As afternoon lengthened clouds gathered, and a few moments ago, to my surprise, began a thunderstorm and rain, only the second I have known since arriving in Africa 61 days ago. Oddly enough, the other shower that soaked me was on the Equator, an unseen line I have crossed and recrossed throughout the ride today. I’m about twenty miles into the southern hemisphere tonight.
And here comes a downpour. It never just ‘rains’ in Africa, it seems: it downpours, torrents, cascades, roars on the roof. It will clear the air. Maybe that’s why I was a bit down today? Ah well, it’ll clear the dust off the Mosquito too.
I am staying – in this two bedroom faceless chalet (with kitchen and bathroom, and a total of two plug sockets) on Baden Powell Road, for it was here in Nyeri that Robert, Lord BP last lived – and died. I don’t think Nyeri has many other claims to fame: it’s just a frenetic trading centre, full of unruly traffic, as I found to my cost this Friday evening, already a bit down and tired.
Wow! This is fire-hose, water cannon rain. Nothing by halves on this continent. Pity I ordered my supper for 7.00… It’s now 7.30, so, this being an African kitchen, it’ll be ready soon – and I’ll get soaked going as far as the characterless dining room. But Susan, who seems to be in charge, and with whom I bargained my room down to my budget (there being no other guests, it’s not a difficult challenge!) is friendly and smiling enough, as I come to expect from social interaction in Kenya.
DAY 62 SATURDAY 20th JANUARY 2017. CHOGORIA, KENYA
Funny, some days – yesterday – just go badly for no rational reason, but others, equally irrationally, go happily. I woke this morning with no plan at all, except that I’d rather reach Nairobi on Sunday: easier traffic, easier finding a place to stay, and I have no great love of that city: not enough to relish a weekend there.
On the spur of the moment I decided I’d ride the circular road around Mount Kenya. That’s actually quite and undertaking: it’ll be 200 miles or so. It turned into a contented day.
The National Geographic map still gives me cause for doubt. A very few roads are outlined in green, the customary symbolic indication of beautiful scenery. But MY most beautiful roads: the one from Eldama Ravine to Kaptagat for instance, are left boringly insignificant. I wonder who recommends beauty to the map maker? The whole ring of Mount Kenya is edged in green – but it takes a long time for the beauty to become apparent. I was riding clockwise round Africa’s second highest mountain, but it was utterly invisible, its lower flanks merging into the mists and clouds. I rode an hour before I began to believe the map, climbing all the time – rather slowly on my Mosquito; climbing into a sort of Altiplano scenery (only half as high as the Andean Altiplano though) – vast airy plains and grasslands sloping down and away to the rest of Kenya; the Aberdare range and distant mountains of the western highlands. There was a wonderful sense of space and a washed-out quality to the light, perhaps the ultraviolet of the altitude in which I was riding. As I climbed higher, Mount Kenya began to clear, and eventually I was able to see many of its jagged peaks, some of them patched with high snow, something you don’t expect on the Equator in summer – but Mount Kenya is 5200 metres high, the best part of 17,000 feet.
The scenery improved as I dipped back into the northern hemisphere: pineapple farms (sadly of the unpleasant Del Monte multinational corporation), and sisal fields giving way, as I rose, to giant fields of wheat, newly turned red soil, acres of plastic hot houses growing flowers for European winter and at last to the most vibrant yellow of rape seed, with its rich, buttery smell, carpeting the slopes with the rest of northern Kenya, a vast desert, in washy shades dematerialising into the limitless distance. Swallows swooped and darted over the rapeseed; the same swallows that will be back in Devon in a few months. Mount Kenya withdrew into cloud once more (I am promised I will see it in the early morning) and my road descended and turned southwards again; once again rose through deep forests, interspersed with small, thriving towns filled with speed humps. It was a lovely journey, well deserving of National Geographic’s green edged accolade now.
Somewhere not far past Nanyuki, I couldn’t believe my eyes to see a sign advertising a farm shop with cappuccino and home made cakes! I have been in Africa for nine weeks, and I haven’t had a home made cake for all that time, let alone a latte with a decorated top! I turned around, and found a trinkety souvenir shop with a coffee machine out the back and cakes under glass domes. Wow! Sometimes, a taste of things familiar is like manna from heaven! I indulged. Far more expensive, of course, than local dried up, so accurately named, ‘rock cakes’ and over-sweetened, milky chai – but this was a luxury. I fell into conversation with Lucy, one of the waitresses. It’s the business of a Kenyan-resident English woman and caters to the British Army who, I had forgotten, have a large training outpost in Nanyuki. Why is the British army here still, 55 years, or whatever it is, after independence? “Well, they pay…” says Luke, the hotel manager tonight, with an ironic smile. “Good money – to our government…”
Sweeping up and down, curling this way and that, views of distant deserts between the trees, riding through clouds of flittering white butterflies, I began to feel it was time to look for a place to stay. It’s always the worst part of my day. I turned into a smart hotel and knew it wasn’t for me, even before the haughty, unsmiling (I guess I don’t look my best after six hours on the road, now dressed in my faded, filthy jacket that I pensioned off four years ago at home, a jersey, a red dust-edged fleece body warmer, my dusty boots and red face) told me the price: three times my budget. I wasn’t sorry. Ten miles on I investigated a dull roadside place. The room was acceptable; the view over a building site, and the ‘gardens’ had seen much better days. The receptionist was friendly: “we are renovating…” but I wanted a view and some light, not a dull, half renovated concrete hotel with tarpaulins for a roof. I’d seen a sign at a nearby junction. And here, a couple of kilometres off the road, I found a quirky hotel facing (now more distant) Mount Kenya. Sadly, the view takes in a lorry park over the road, but the hotel has a roof terrace bar and my room is basic but with a small balcony looking west at the mountain range. The staff are helpful and the price £12.50. Hardly sophisticated, but fine by me.
So my unplanned day has been satisfying after all. Funny how it goes. The joy of travelling.
DAY 63 SUNDAY 21st JANUARY 2017. NAIROBI, KENYA
Reluctantly, I find myself in Nairobi onceb
again. I don’t want to be in a big city but I have to stay until Wednesday, when I will get out as quickly as I can. On Wednesday morning, I will meet the MD of Olerai Ltd, previous owners of the Mosquito. And tomorrow I will brace myself to visit the Ethiopian embassy. Otherwise, I have no wish to be here.
And, god, did I witness some bad driving to get here! It was terrifying to see the dangerous, thoughtless, aggressive behaviour of some of the drivers on the main road from the north. The final 30 miles wasn’t so bad, on a motorway: at least all the traffic on my side of the barrier was heading in roughly the same direction, even if lane discipline was non existent, despite all the signs: ‘keep left unless overtaking’. Worst was the fifty miles before that, when a single carriageway road was used as a race track by untrained drivers. I cannot believe there was a single driving lesson shared between all the multitude of drivers. I wonder how much they paid for their licenses?
Arriving on Sunday was probably a good idea once I got to the city centre for traffic was relatively light and well controlled and I was able to ride about in a fairly relaxed manner, even downtown. In the end I copped out and returned to the guest house Rico prefers, despite the expense and the fact that it’s rather isolated from the services I want – namely a place to get some beer and food. It blows my budget sky high, costing just about double my accommodation budget, but finding places within my £15 budget here in the capital city would mean staying right in the centre in pretty squalid conditions and without much security.
DAY 64 MONDAY 22nd JANUARY 2017. NAIROBI, KENYA
I can tell, from my somewhat terse account of yesterday that I wasn’t ‘in the mood’. Well, today was EVEN MORE frustrating – but at least I have ended it with decisions.
Just as well I make no real plans when I am travelling thus, but go as instinct and whim dictate. Making plans and itineraries in Africa is a vain operation, never more so than when bureaucracy and bureaucrats are involved.
It was my desire to visit Kenya and Ethiopia on this winter visit, with a couple of sorties over the Uganda border, mainly to see Alex and Precious. As of this morning, Ethiopia is off the menu entirely. I’ve had a lot of experience of embassies and consulates, but seldom the brick wall of the Ethiopian embassy, Nairobi.
This morning I rode to the Ethiopian embassy. It’s beside the State House in a pleasant part of the city on one of the hills. Around the State House are gardens and an arboretum. At its altitude (around 5000 feet) Nairobi is a green city: trees and shrubs grow well here where there’s plenty of sun and enough rainfall. If you don’t look too closely, it’s quite an attractive city, certainly for Africa. Look a bit closer and a lot of it’s rather run down; city parks threadbare, the pedallos, splashing about on a turgid pond spanned by rather rough rusting girder bridges; the traffic medians dusty and parched; ugly hoardings abounding and the streets pitted with potholes – but at that glance, not bad! Big moves forward have been made since the banning of plastic bags and the city is largely litter-free; traffic quiet even if it follows no perceptible rules and few traffic lights work, but drivers are basically cooperative and calm and everything moves. It’s a far far cry from cities like Accra, for instance. The infrastructure is old but evident. On a motorbike, happily trained in European traffic density, I can ride with an enjoyable freedom from control – as the boda-boda riders do: ignoring the lights (within reason), ignoring ‘no right turns’, traffic islands and turning in the road when required, so long as I keep an eye open for policemen. It’s quite liberating! As I am trained to know what’s around me, including behind – a direction with which very few African drivers concern themselves – it can be fun.
Anyway, I rode to the Ethiopian embassy and parked the bike on a flowerbed across the street. I had to sign in, be checked for security and leave my bag in the lobby. Then I pushed open a big polished door to the Consular Section. I hovered a moment, then saw a man at a ‘reception’ desk. Big smile, nicest charm offensive… “I’ve come to apply for a visa!”
“Have you got the letter of introduction from your embassy? No? Well, if you get it we can issue a visa, with $40, a photograph and a copy of your passport. I had all those. This sounded positive – except I knew from the internet that the British High Commission does not issue that letter…
Passing between bollards put to prevent U turns on the main Kenyatta Avenue, I raced across town to the British High Commission, a tidy spread of grey marbled buildings behind trees and generous security of soldiers behind huge sandbags. It took some time to actually get inside, but the security personnel were polite, took away my filthy jacket, helmet and bag, and finally let me in to the holy of holies through an impressive security turnstile.
Within a few minutes, I was in possession of a letter, complete with British High Commission stamp: ‘To whom it may concern. The British High Commission no longer issues letters of introduction for visa purposes. In case of any further enquiries please contact: Jackie Brook, Consul’
I had to be content with that. There was just time to race back through the traffic before the Ethiopian embassy closed at noon.
The bike back in the flower bed. All the security again. The same man. “We can’t issue a visa with THIS! We need a letter of introduction. THIS is NOT a letter of introduction!”
“No, but my embassy DOES NOT ISSUE letters of introduction! What can I do?”
“Go to our embassy, round the corner.”
So I did. As I approached the gates, a window opened in the wall. I had to leap over a low hedge and stand on the dusty verge to talk to the security guard. “Show me your papers,” she demanded. I passed my passport and the letter through the casement.
“You can’t get a visa with THIS!” Remember, I am now talking to a security guard employed by G4S! A mere SECURITY GUARD of a private company! I was taking none of THAT shit! “I want to speak to an official!”
The SECURITY GUARD! Huh! made a call. A phone receiver was passed through the steel-framed casement to where I stood on the trampled flower bed. A disinterested voice told me they would not issue a visa without a letter of introduction from my embassy. “But my embassy DOES NOT ISSUE letters of introduction! How can I break this loop?”
The phone went dead… She’d hung up on me.
This NONSENSE goes round and round, and we pay our taxes to keep the shit circulating.
Embassy life… I have been to many. It seems to me that the main requirement for embassy employment is a TOTAL lack of understanding of the country in which you are working; total arrogance about your own country; stony-faced superiority and the ability to be rude without even opening your mouth; the ability to work for about ten minutes a day – consulates open for three hour days; they get all the holidays of the host country – and THEIR OWN country too! I once found a British embassy closed, after considerable trouble getting there – for the Queen’s birthday. The queen of bloody England! – and I was in some foreign corner of the world… Visa interviews in Ghana, to take an example, are no longer even carried out by British people, but have been franchised out to Lebanese (!!!) and application fees are non-refundable and there is no right of appeal – even if the reason given for refusal of a visa to visit me in England, for which I have written every proviso of responsibility possible, is given as, and I quote, as I can never forget it: ‘the applicant comes of humble origins and as such will have no incentive to return to Ghana’. The cultural arrogance! I pay my taxes for this. I took that one up with my MP, who was shocked as I was, and months later got a washy letter back from the High Commission in Accra that the employee concerned had since been moved to other duties… Big deal. The window had closed for that application. The visit didn’t happen and I lost my money too.
Well, my righteous indignation will never get me a visa to Ethiopia. I can see that even if I got the British consul’s assistance on one item, the Ethiopian embassy will put hurdles in my way: the message was implicit in all the body language. Jump through one hoop and they’ll create another…
I rang the British High Commission and spoke to a young man, who professed to have never heard of the problem before, which I beg leave to doubt, and he quoted the UK.GOV website at me. So I wrote an email to Ms Brook, Consul – and received an automatic reply saying that the British Government aimed to reply within 20 working days to my query. ‘WORKING’ days, that is… Considering they only work half days: “multiply by two,” laughed Rico derisively when I rang to report progress!
So, it looks like I am headed for Uganda! Just as well I loved it so well last year. There’s Tanzania to the south as well, a huge country I haven’t explored much.
Back at the guest house, I communicated my frustration to Rico. I came to expensive, not very engaging Nairobi for two things: the Ethiopian visa, and to meet Mr Wood, MD of Olerai Ltd (a seed company, I find), previous owners of the Mosquito. Rico has been in so much contact about the bloody log book! I was to meet Mr Wood on Wednesday morning. By chance, an email from his secretary, says that, oh, it won’t be possible to meet me in Nairobi as they are 100 miles away in Narok!
So, the best thing to come out of it all, is that I can leave Nairobi in the morning. I’m writing this in the garden of an Ethiopian restaurant round the corner from the guest house, as it seems an Ethiopian supper might be the closest I get this year. Maybe I can get the visa in London next autumn and fly out and ride directly to Ethiopia? Some people even go to the length of couriering their passports home and applying in London, but this takes at least three weeks – and in the meantime, I couldn’t even go to Uganda! Huh!
To reduce my frustration, I left the Mosquito in the guest house and walked all the way to the city centre and back this afternoon, a distance of perhaps eight miles, so at least I’ll sleep well. Nairobi seems to have lost that edge of danger and unease that gave it the nickname, Nairobbery. Mind you, I was walking in the central business district, and there are security guards on even the smallest business, often with metal detector batons, and all larger buildings have security screening too. On the way home, I walked against the flow of thousands of ministry workers. But I felt quite relaxed and revised my opinion of the city a little upwards again. However, I won’t miss it much as I ride away – tomorrow!
DAY 65 TUESDAY 23rd JANUARY 2017. OL GOLAU, KENYA
Incidentally, the Ethiopian supper gave me indigestion and I didn’t sleep very soundly. There’s a meaning there somewhere…
Some weeks ago, William told me of a route to get to Nairobi without using the dangerous main roads. Although I appear to have mis- or re-interpreted his instructions, I find myself 200kms away from Nairobi, avoiding the main roads. But somewhere I took a wrong turn and my day became fun and rather stimulating, but also very tiring. I got lost in the vast Aberdare Forest and had 17 miles of seriously remote, hard trail riding before I found my way out!
It was noon before I left the guest house in the big city. I had maintenance to do on the Mosquito – the hot hammering ride into Nairobi on Sunday had used a lot of oil and stretched and dried the chain again; and I wanted to use the opportunity of being close to a good bookshop in the YaYa Centre, to buy a map of Uganda, since it seems that’s where I will be spending some time now. There was talk of me leaving Nairobi in the other direction to visit the MD of Olerai, but a phone call kicked that idea into touch. His secretary is now dealing with the matter (I hope!) and she said there was no point my calling at Narok, where they appear to be… Oh well, I had no reason to go that way anyway, so I turned north once again, back towards my favourite part of Kenya, the Highlands, barely resisting a strong urge to flick a rude sign at the Ethiopian embassy as I passed.
Back up the six lane motorway – swerving to avoid a stolid cow crossing to the median – and slowing down for the inevitable speed humps: even on a motorway, because rather than build pedestrian bridges, they have somewhat unbelievable zebra crossings! After less than forty kilometres the ‘motorway’ ends and then the chaos begins with the appalling drivers. How happy I was to spot the road I wanted within a mile of the reduction of carriageways, which was creating a irresistible challenge and competition for so many drivers. I turned onto a decent tarred road with virtually NO traffic at all. I relaxed and began to enjoy my ride. The road curled and twisted upwards, my spirits rising with the altitude. I was passing just north of Thika, a town made famous by being the title of a book of colonial memoirs – probably its only glorious hour. But the country to the north became increasingly attractive: coffee estates giving way to carpets of tea bushes clothing the steep hillsides, flowered hedges and sunshine. The smile began to rekindle on my face at last. I guess I just don’t appreciate city life any more. What do you DO in cities? Visit dry cultural attractions – and sadly, African museums and rare galleries ARE dry and dusty, flyblown and dull (on the whole), and there are no interesting historical sights to enjoy in Africa; go shopping? – no thank you; perhaps eat in some better quality restaurants – but I am depressed eating good food on my own: it’s a social activity.
The road, the C67, was delightful. I rode slowly upwards, the Aberdares to my right, the north; blue ridges etched against a bright sky dotted with white clouds. I was passing through concentrated agriculture: tea, coffee, maize and hot houses that supply flowers to Europe at this time of the year. I must have missed a junction though… Unexpectedly, I found myself at a rough barrier and the end of the tar road. Lounging on a hillside were a couple of rangers in khaki uniforms, beside a shelter of rough logs and planks. One of them raised his hands in a shrug that said, “Where the hell are you going?” I stopped and told him I was heading for Nyahururu, which seemed to satisfy him. He waved his hand along the now earth track, as if to reassure me. Thinking back, I wonder if he really spoke as much English as I assumed!
The track deteriorated but the scenery was lovely. I was heading deep into expansive commercial forests, glimpsing the Aberdares through the trees. I was given confidence by the suggestion that I was indeed on a route to Nyahururu. Hadn’t the ranger said so..? Several miles in, a motorbike rode towards me and waved me down. The riders were forest rangers; one of them a three stripe security guard. “Where to..?” with a wiggle of his hands. “Nyahururu!”
“Eh, you are LOST! Go on this way and you will be really lost! You are going the wrong way! Carry on this way and you might get back to Thika – eventually…”
So they made me follow them back to an obscure junction of the tracks and stopped again. The sergeant got down and sketched a map in the dust. “You go this way,” he said, his stick scratching the hard surface. “You’ll find a small junction. There’s a rain gauge there. Don’t pass it: go over the bridge to the left. Then you’ll climb and climb and eventually reach a corrugated road. Go right. Don’t go left! You will come to Njambini. It will take you about an hour…” He looked my bike over. “You will be OK on this! Safe journey!” And off they rode in a pother of dust.
Well!!! In hindsight, it was fun, but it was astonishingly remote! The ‘bridge’ was six logs over a river. In places I seemed to be on little more than a pitted, broken, faint footpath deep in the forest, with the undergrowth slashing and catching at me as I pushed on. Astonishingly – for me and for the workers – I came across two straining tractors rocking and forcing their way along towing trailers filled with cut trees, the workers ‘hallooing’ in surprise. The dreadful path eventually gave way to a horrid rock road that bounced me further and further through the forest, and finally, to my relief, to another forest station, where a charming female ranger was surprised to witness a dust-covered, rather wild-looking mzungu daddy come round the corner! In a couple more miles I would reach tar again, all the way to Nyahururu, still at least 100kms distant, she reassured me.
Once my shadow hits the centre of the road, I know it’s time to look for a place to sleep. I wouldn’t reach Nyahururu for another 25 miles, and I was tired and getting chilled by the altitude now. An anachronistic 50-roomed (49 of them empty tonight) ‘resort’ showed up, dull, on budget, a view of the mountains from my dingy room, hot water, a restaurant with most items unavailable, but a couple of beers. It will do for the night. Ten roast potatoes on my plate made me laugh, until I found I had eaten seven of them! I saw a ‘snacks’ menu the other day, offering a KILO of roasted potatoes – as a SNACK – for 74 pence!
So it’s been a fun day: unexpected too. Best, though, is to leave Nairobi far behind me. I have no real direction for the rest of my journey, but that doesn’t matter when things just turn up as they did today. I love that element of surprise! At 8.30, it feels like time to head for bed.
DAY 66 WEDNESDAY 24th JANUARY 2017. KAPTAGAT, KENYA
Another rather long ride today, about 175 miles, and bits ache all over. Perhaps the very rough road, lost in the forest yesterday, is taking its toll too. It WAS rugged, that track. A few days ago I pulled a muscle, at about ‘four o’clock’ in my neck (prosaically, in my sleep I think, despite all the huge exercise I get on the bike!). Last time I visited an osteopath, he commented on how highly developed are some of the muscles in the front of my neck, typical, he reckoned, for a long distance motorcyclist holding up a helmet. Well, tonight it’s my neck, back and bum. And when I think about it, my arms and legs are pretty tired too..! Haha. Oh well, there’s always the balancing sense of satisfaction that these aches and pains come from riding motorbikes around Africa and crossing the Equator another five times today.
At least I was spared the routine stress of looking for a place to sleep, by returning to Room 2, Kaptagat Hotel, with the log fires; the numerous drunks round the bar, with their nose-curling body odour, suggesting I buy them even more cane spirit than they’ve already imbibed to the point that they lose all pride and beg; probably with the erratic food order, but also with the peace of the night when all the drunks have staggered away into the African night to shout at the wife, yell at the dependent children whose inheritance they have just squandered, probably at the expense of their suppers, or fall in a ditch – hopefully, the latter.
Smiling Ellen and her cheerful, tubby assistant just brought a shovel of charcoal for my grate. “We will bring firewood!” A few minutes later they arrived with armfuls of sticks and logs, enough for a mighty blaze. “Wow, are you bringing a bonfire?” It’s not really so very cold tonight, but it’s fun to have the fire in my brick grate and drink my beer and eat my supper in its glow – it dries my washing too!
Breakfast was enormous in the rather spooky hotel this morning. It was very odd, being the only guest in a sprawling two storey hotel with my room down unlit narrow corridors. And why were the rooms so meanly small, such that I had to clamber over my pannier bags in the tiny space by the bed, when the hotel was so big? But it was quiet: there was no one there to make any noise. I will never understand African design priorities. I ate alone at a rocky table in a huge, empty restaurant beside a large blue swimming pool with cracked edges.
Today I began my ride up around 8000 feet above sea level, dropped to three or four thousand and climbed again to 8000. All quite slow with only 200ccs of engine. I dropped from coniferous forests and cool, sunny agriculture with many plastic hot houses sending flowers to the cold north, down to cacti and succulents, aloes and dry acacias on pale brown stony ground split by dry, dusty riverbeds, and back to green slopes with bubbling streams, forests and people dressed in heavy jackets and woolly hats.
The reason for all the Equator crossings is that to get around the large Menengai Crater, an expansive volcanic souvenir just north of the hideous city of Nakuru, through which runs the appalling East Africa Highway with its ghastly death statistics, you have to make a huge U-shaped loop southwards and back to the other side of the Rift Valley. ‘Nakuru, City of God’, proclaim the signposts. Well, for once God got the short straw there! It means a couple of miles on one of Africa’s most dangerous roads, right at a point where they are constructing a large flyover, but building it without any provision for detours in the meantime, so all the traffic – and this is THE main artery, even to Uganda and Rwanda, including most of their fuel supplies – shakes and bounces across a potholed rough track beside the new flyover, jostling and pushing for position. For me, trying just to make that U turn back onto the other north road half a mile west, it meant a huge, fighting figure of eight as there’s no roundabout! It’s just crazy, and I was thankful to be racing past the city rubbish dump some minutes later with its flying, wind-whisked debris, heading away from that road that I have ridden hundreds of kilometres to avoid.
Now I have a flaming log fire and will probably sink into a soporific doze with my mixed Guinness and Pilsner before my supper arrives. I ordered off-the-bone chicken curry with rice and a chapati. It’ll be intriguing to see what turns up. When I was here last week no dishes arrived as ordered… It’s also part of the quirky charm of the old, cobwebby colonial style – and, let’s face it, I AM only paying £14.50 for the oddity of it all.
NB. Next morning: the curry was actually excellent and the chapatis the best I have eaten, not oily but dry. But this morning I was asked what I wanted for breakfast. Egg, sausage and toast? “But we have no bread!” My level of hotel accommodation in Africa can be a bit hit and miss…
DAY 67 THURSDAY 25th JANUARY 2017. KESSUP, KENYA
Having found one of my favourite roads in East Africa, and being only ten miles from the top of it, I made a route down into the wonderful valley to bring me back to Kessup once again. There was just enough rain in the night to settle the dust and make that lovely road even more enjoyable, but it was also just enough to partially obscure the view as moisture ephemerally veiled the valley, burning off in the hot equatorial sun.
It’s the road I took down into the valley on Thursday last week, swivelling and curling down into the Rift Valley to the oddly named Fluorspar. Last week, at the sweltering valley bottom, I turned right through a shallow river by a sign: ‘Warning. Crocodiles have been seen in this area. Washing of vehicles in the river is strictly prohibited’, and crossed the valley. Today, I continued straight on along the bottom of the very high escarpment until I joined the tar road that winds and twists back up towards Kessup on its plateau, three quarters of the way up the steep embankment, the final cliffs of which rise above me here at the Lelin Resort.
Where the track leaves the tarred road, high, high above the valley on the west side, I stopped to confirm my directions from the boda-boda boys. In a moment I was surrounded by at least twenty curious young men, all smiles and welcomes; questions and laughter. It’s such FUN to be the celebrity focus of such cheerful and caring attention. Yes, they all agreed, this was the ONLY road into the valley hereabouts, and if I kept to the left turn at the bottom in fifteen miles or so, I would eventually end up on the Tambach escarpment road another ten miles on. “Safe journey!” “Karibu sana!” All smiles and excitement. It’s SO charming. With many waves, I set off downwards, back on that loveliest of trails to the valley bottom, bouncing and weaving over rock and earth, with views fit for calendars at every turn and people reacting to my waves and smiles – old women, schoolchildren, boda-boda riders – everyone seeming to appreciate the happiness of my wide smile and be happy for me too. I rode very slowly downwards, the heat increasing with every metre, the views still vast and wide. Small villages passed; shacks of tin and earth, people scratching a living from these steep slopes, probably unappreciative of the beauty around them: beauty of the landscape doesn’t put food on the table…
The sun blazed down, the air was fresh, the dust settled by last night’s light rain. The cliff sides were green and abundant, the shambas small and steep. Cows grazed the roadside, trailing their long, handmade tethering ropes. Goats scrambled for sustenance from lower branches. Country people sat and watched me pass, quizzical expressions changing to smiles at my greetings. My happiness was obvious.
Way down, near the valley floor, now riding amongst dry rocks, thorn trees, aloes and termite chimneys, some as tall as eight or ten feet, I passed the pole barrier again, laughing with the security guard from the fluorspar mine, all smiles as I signed his book. “Keep to the left and don’t cross the river,” he said. It was hot here but the road was graded and easier, threading its way through the bush country and thorn trees. A few miles on I stopped for a mug of over-sweet milky tea, provided by the extravagantly named Salome, entertained by cheerful Mary with her hair in short twisted spikes, peppered with beads. But there’s always a drunk who noisily interrupts such pleasant pauses. Pushing a wheelbarrow, which fell over several times, he came and disturbed our easy conversation, booze emanating from his pores, even though it was only midday. I sat on a low stool, removed my jersey and sipped at the hot sweet tea. As much as I needed the drink, I’d stopped to relish the moment: a small tin and timber shack village abreast a dust track in the deep Rift Valley beneath the searing, eye-squinting sun.
On I rode, seldom faster than 20 miles an hour, the road scratched along the base of the high escarpment, the huge valley laid out still a little below, expansive and shimmering with haze and heat. People waved. People smiled.
At last I reached the tar road again, and swept through thorn trees, mango plantations, past dozens of schools and small wayside lock up shops that seldom seem to do any business. Then the climb began towards Kessup and on towards Iten back at the top of the valley rim. It’s a fine road, clambering up the mountainside in a series of bends and curls, my little engine straining with the climb back to the altitudes of the highlands above. A bee, or similar, hit me and stung my neck with a dramatic pain. It’s the reason I keep covered when I ride, despite the heat. Once, in Zimbabwe, I rode through a swarm of bees, at least forty of them peppering my zipped-up jacket like grapeshot. In the tee shirt I would have been so much more comfortable wearing that blazing day, they could well have been fatal.
Thousands of feet up from the hot valley comes the rocky track down to the Lelin campsite and resort, now familiar to me after so many visits. I’d texted my friend William: ‘Your friend will be back in Mexico soon!’ – Mexico being the name of the room that seems to be always allocated to me.
William was so pleased to find me back again, and it’s him and our congenial walks about his community that bring me here time and again. He tells me that so many of his community ask him now, “Where’s your mzungu?” And that my friendship has, in that questionable African respect for the white man, brought him a lot of esteem. It’s so funny to witness the way he organises the staff at this ‘resort’, ensuring that ‘his’ mzungu gets only the best! He is so happy to see me again and we’ve drunk a few beers together and eaten supper in the timber shelter, round a small brazier of charcoal as a cold gale has risen. “It will rain, next three or four days,” says William. “If the wind comes from the mountain above, it means rain.” Usually, I am accustomed to the wind sweeping up from the burning furnace of the valley below. Tonight it rattles anything loose as it blows strongly from the west, over the edge of the high ridges above us, sweeping past and down into the valley far below.
I made William laugh out loud, and call Ursula, the young waitress, to retell the story. Talking of how I travel to meet people and find out what makes others tick, I made the comment that most muzungus come to Africa to look at animals. “I’ve been here almost ten weeks and the most exciting wild animal I’ve seen, apart from a few baboons and monkeys, was a red squirrel this afternoon!” I’m old enough to remember red squirrels being common in my English childhood, so I AM excited when I see one nowadays!
DAY 68 FRIDAY 26th JANUARY 2017. KESSUP, KENYA
Everywhere around here I am ‘William’s mzungu’, so much so that I think even if I walked alone in the villages and habitations of the Kessup plateau, I would still be greeted by many as William’s mzungu. Both William and I like people, walking about congenially and being sociable. We spent three or four hours wandering amongst his community, chatting with neighbours and investigating the way of life of the Kessup plateau.
Welcomes abound: fulsome and cheerful. These people love to meet strangers, and for some I may well be the first mzungu to enter their compounds or to chat equally with them. It’s a busy rural life, little changed perhaps for a century or more. Fields must be cultivated, generally by hard graft and by hand with heavy swinging hoes; homes must be maintained, for many buildings are still of earth, plank, stick and thatch or zinc sheet; food must be grown; crops milled or marketed; shambas watered; cattle watched and all the details of life without any modern conveniences attended to. It’s a hard life with no luxuries, except that of human warmth and neighbourliness.
It’s just the sort of day I enjoy. We walk the red dust tracks and trails, wander in and out of village compounds, shake hands endlessly and hear the news as we go, although William seldom engages in gossip: he’s too aware of the value of the respect in which he is generally held for his integrity. He’s a thoroughly decent man, and respected along the plateau for his honesty and probity.
Three hours or more of walking and then back to the pleasant gardens of a bar on the upper side of the long curling road from Iten up above to the sweltering Kerio Valley down below. We enjoy our conversation. I enjoy adding even more smiling African portraits to my already extensive collection.
An Englishman, Robin, arrived at Lelin this afternoon. He lives in Nairobi, with an Italian wife and two children. He’s a keen paraglider and sometimes stays here in Kessup for a few days. He joined William and I for a beer after supper. He’s a water engineer and gets contracts with various NGOs. His father used to live in Blackawton, some five or six miles from Harberton! He has probably drunk in the Church House Inn. The old saw: a small world.
Rico texts me to tell me the Mosquito log book will be ready for collection in Eldoret in seven days from now! Astonishing: it’s only taken a bit over a year.
DAY 69 SATURDAY 27th JANUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA
Each time I think that I may be repeating the experiences of this journey, I find it turns into something new. I rode back from Kessup to Kitale, partly by the routes that have become familiar, but knowing that I could find other ‘roads’ that weren’t on my map. It was yet another wonderful ride.
The Cheringani Hills are delightful, and high and complex in their routes. For a place that is so highly fertile and heavily farmed there are, of course, many small tracks that carry the goods to market and the people to their shambas and wood and zinc homes. I set off on the now familiar road to the north, up onto the cliff top at Iten, then on towards the hills. Ten miles on, the road turns to red dust, settled by a brief heavy shower yesterday afternoon, making the experience so much more comfortable. Then, for a few miles, there’s a fine piece of tar road, completely unconnected to any other (this often means a member of government lives nearby in these countries!). At Cherongei, I turn onto the beginning of the grandly named Cheringani Highway, which is slowly being constructed from the other end, but from my end is a rocky red track winding into the hills through old conifers, twisted and dark and majestic. Small villages pass, shacks of timber, zinc and dust, and I am never far from people, for every negotiable inch of the land is utilised: this is Africa, with its vast and growing population.
Somewhere in the hills, at a dusty junction, the boda-boda boys, whom I use for information on the trails and roads, for they are plying them constantly on their little overloaded bikes, waved at a pale dust road weaving off to the left. Kapcherop was that way, and Cheringani town and Kitale would eventually follow. I rode on, through the fine scenery of the cultivated hills, people waving and smiling at the mzungu. I had a strong impression that smiling mzungus on piki-pikis are a rarity up here – in fact, mzungus in any mood are seldom seen.
I stopped at a wayside village, little more than a couple of rows of bare, weathered timber and rusty zinc shacks housing tiny threadbare shops, most of them stocking the same items: soap, matches, tea, candles, plastic shoes, a few local vegetables, some faded second hand clothes (this is where the rejects from Western charity shops end up), loose cigarettes, old biscuits and lurid snacks and products, all still packaged in plastic despite the plastic bag ban and the laudable drive to limit the plastic content of Kenya’s countryside, animals and soils. One or two shacks have the word ‘hotel’ written in wobbly paint across the corrugated walls. Here you can get some broken bones of the tough goats that have scavenged these mean villages and pretty hillsides until they end up in a pot, with dry ughali and peppery soup, served on plastic plates, dull and scratched from use. Here too I can get mugs of over-sweet tea for seven pence, poured this time from a vast aluminium kettle that is kept just on the boil all day long.
This was Kibigos, a village like all the others: two lines of simple shacks, several large tin churches of ridiculous ‘pastors’- the best structures of the villages locked and shuttered for most of the week (many paid for by fundamentalist Americans to bring ‘enlightenment’ to the ‘natives’); a local government office, some drooping electricity lines on crooked poles, weaving their way up from the valley; dusty verges and brightly decorated, dented boda-bodas leaning in the dust waiting for passengers or loads. There are boda-bodas everywhere, for where – even a few years ago – people would walk these dust roads with their loads, they now all go on the backs of small motorbikes, the driver seated with his balls on the tank, with up to four people behind him on the small 100cc machines. They get them everywhere, and I often gain confidence as I shake and weave over these rocky tracks, to think that if they can do it four up, I can do it one up! I am told the name comes from the fact that most of these services began on the Kenya/ Uganda border and the cry was “Border! Border!”
Taking my tea to sit outside the dingy lock up ‘hotel’ under the shade of the tin awning, I sat on a wooden bench on logs with my chipped enamel mug. Another seat, six feet in front of me on the dusty slope to the road, was soon filled with seven or eight men and children, come to gaze at the passing mystery. In these tiny, out of the way places education levels are low and few are confident to speak to me, but they smile shyly and happily when I greet them. Eventually, always, someone with better confidence in English will approach. In Kibigos it was Edwin, who asked the inevitable questions: my name, where from, to where, which football team do I support: all the answers that, after I leave, will be disseminated to the gathered crowd. The tea is sickly sweet and milky, but it hardly matters: I have stopped for the moment, here in Kibigos. It’s the experience of the warmth and curiosity that re-energises me, as much as the rest I need from the beating road or the energy from the tea. Filthy but happily smiling children smile from behind shy hands; everyone is dressed in tattered jackets and anoraks and woolly hats up here. There’s a strong smell of not very well washed bodies used to manual labour. Being Saturday – or maybe Kibigos is always thus – there are people lounging about everywhere watching the most interesting event of the day – until, of course, that is, one of the scrappy ‘hotels’ begins to relay the Premier League match of the day to the assembled fans, for football is without any doubt Britain’s biggest export to the world nowadays. Can it be called British any more, I wonder? For so much of soccer is now Big Business and international now, but it is still generally played on British fields and I often hear of current snow or rain in Manchester, Liverpool, Chelsea, and all the other towns that are now known the world around. I am often asked which town I come from, the assumption being that it will be Manchester, because the world knows where that is.
There were 42 miles of rock, dust and rut on that generally degraded road; about half the way was not tarmac. It was hard going, especially coming down from the hills. It always seems that Kitale is high – at 5630 feet – but my ride was MUCH higher, descending for many miles from those high beautiful ‘hills’, that, really, I’d call mountains! After 42 miles of this exercise I was weary and glad to be on smooth tar for the last miles back to the busy traffic of Saturday afternoon in Kitale.
Now I am back in the congenial company of my friends, beers with Rico on the porch as we wait for Adelight to come home from work at her tailoring business that, thanks to her spirit and capability, seems to be doing well as it grows. The eight Christmas puppies are now playing all around the compound under our feet, cheerful additions to already happy family life. Baby Maria, the happiest baby I know, plays in her cot beside Rico and I. We have a few jobs to do on the Mosquito tomorrow, then I must make plans – of sorts – for the next part of my safari, since Ethiopia is wiped off the possibilities. Doubtless, I will find other interests and pleasures in Uganda and maybe in Rwanda and Tanzania again. As I said when I started tonight, I am often afraid I am going to merely repeat my experiences – yet they always turn out to have new directions and new interests – and new people.