WEST & EAST AFRICA 2018 – Journal nine

DAY 70 SUNDAY 28th JANUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

My journeys have taken on a very different form to the old days, when I raced from one place to another, always on the move, urgent to see as much as I could while I could, with the little money I had. Now, on the recent African journeys, southern and eastern, I have had ‘bases’ from which to start; places I could leave my extra luggage; places to relax with warm friends; places to leave my motorbikes when I went away. It makes these journeys satisfying, more in depth – and a lot more relaxed. This safari seems to be going in short bursts: journeys out from Kitale, so far. From here, I guess I will take a longer trip away from base, starting on Tuesday…

*

We spent Sunday quietly, before going to a place in town in the afternoon, with Cor, Rico’s old friend and other Dutch neighbour. There, as we downed a few beers in the warm afternoon, the staff barbecued two whole ribs of excellent lamb, served with delicious crispy baked potatoes – our Sunday meal. “You do really well for a vegetarian, Jonathan!” joked Rico, as I tucked in. I must admit, though, that I will be glad to get away from all the meat meals in Africa. It makes for such heavy eating and I look forwards to eight months of being basically veggie again.

This is also my time to wash and repair clothes, maintain the Mosquito and, really, just enjoy my old friend Rico’s company, here in the cheerful family atmosphere. Old friendships, with people who share values and stories, are times to be enjoyed, even if you have to travel half the world to keep them live – maybe especially when you have to travel so far!

DAY 71 MONDAY 29th JANUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

A quiet day not achieving much. We wanted to fix the Mosquito headlight, which has very loose connections (Chinese made…) but were scuppered by the power being off for most of the day. It wasn’t until we found that the neighbours were all enjoying power that Rico found a loose wire in the incoming supply to the fuse box. Kenya Power is known for pretty shoddy workmanship! By then it was too late: we had our beers in hand. The light will wait until the morning, before I set off for Uganda. Still, other small maintenance did get done ready for the next part of my East African safari…

DAY 72 TUESDAY 30th JANUARY 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

Back to waving Uganda. I was going to take the more southerly route around the south of Mount Elgon, but decided at the last minute to come by the appalling Suam River border as before. It’s a good deal shorter, and the remote southerly route is quite difficult to find, although the tracks aren’t so punishing. So I arrived at Sipi absolutely exhausted! Either the road is getting far worse or I am getting older. Since I am resolutely still 38, it can’t be the latter, so I reckon the road IS getting even more punishing. It’s just about the hardest exercise I know, these five hours bucketing and bouncing, balancing and fighting the Mosquito’s desire to lie down flat at every new obstacle: every yard or two. It really does use every muscle, plus a lot of concentration and a resistance to be diverted by excited children, waving old ladies and thumbs-upping young men. Only 21 non-local vehicles have registered at Suam border this year (you may recollect, I was the fourth on January 9th, and I read only African names today), so a mzungu dancing about on the rocks, ruts and shambles of their unfrequented track in a thick pother of dirt, causes a lot of animation in the dust-covered shack villages through which the diabolical trail passes. It’s hard, but it’s satisfying too, especially when I reach the end of the ride and can metaphorically pat myself on the back – there being no energy left to waste in trying to do so physically!

The ride sort of splits into four quarters: the first, from Kitale to Suam is initially tarred, then a reasonably passable red hard earth road to the border; some bumps and potholes, and broken here and there. A few miles after the border, begins the section that makes all the effort worthwhile, for here I climb through the mountain ridges of lower Mount Elgon, up a serpentine, rocky hill and through a few villages and, early on, the only town en route, Bukwo. It is the scenes off to my right that are so wonderful, and today especially so for the clouding veil had dissipated a bit and I could see for tens of miles down into the great plains of central Uganda, dotted with giant volcanic pimples, washing away into a blue haze of distance. It’s just lovely, between banana fronds, past conical thatch dwellings. It’s difficult to keep my eyes on the ‘road’ here, often a shelf carved from the mountainside.

Then comes the forest section – the worst for dust and danger of falling, for the track climbs amongst graceful, tall trees, the road becoming deep with red dust that slithers and slides beneath my wheels. Ruts and rocks are disguised and it’s vile going, up and down some steep, slippery hills in drifts of fine dust.

By now of course, I am blathered in dust, a huge trail billowing behind. I am in that cloud, and whenever I pass any other vehicle, from boda-boda to panting lorry, I am engrossed in dust. Almost no one but me has eye protection as they ride, and eye and respiratory problems are a major concern in African older age. Imagine too, living alongside these tracks, daily breathing in this dense, lung and eye-clogging filth, as many do, all their rather short lives.

The final section is more densely populated and a little faster, but it also has the longest, most broken dust slide hills, dangerous now that I am so physically tired, with more traffic and bigger consequent clouds. At last, after sixty ghastly – but often beautiful – miles, I reach Kapchorwa and blessed tarmac. I can forgive the sandy potholes from here on; I need just a few inches of continuous surface. Now, as I head for the first ATM in this part of the country, where the security
guards laugh at my condition, I can untense muscles and enjoy the last ten miles to what I know will be the warmest welcome.

*

I’d texted Alex from Suam: ‘your mzungu is approaching Coffeeland sometime this afternoon’, so Precious had prepared the old thatch hut for my arrival. Precious’s creative skills with some simple fabric is worthy of great hotels, not a run down, shoe-string rural Ugandan guest house. It was charming, the preparations she had made. She had hung lengths of Nottingham lace to cover the broken bamboo lining of the walls (perhaps the only situation in which I can find the revolting stuff acceptable!) and made the bed look luxurious (if unironed) by folding colourful towels into rosettes and putting bright yellow flowers in their centres and around the bed! A couple of mats disguised the crumbling cement of the floor. These young people deserve so much, and struggle for everything. I transferred Alex £100 two weeks ago, which will build about one third of the first ‘traditional’ round thatched house (‘banda’, here) for the renovation of his ‘resort’. I am so impressed: he has already bought the majority of the materials and instructed a local builder in what he wants in his design. “The grass for the roof will arrive tomorrow. I went to that village where you went to the funeral and looked at the houses you saw, and I took your picture of the round house in Lesotho that we like, and I said to the builder, ‘I want like this…’. I went there to buy plants with your money too.” For I had suggested that we mzungus like to see a well kept compound with colourful shrubs and flowers. “I just have to buy a toilet. I am going to make the house self-contained, just like I told you!” He has determination, drive, ambition and imagination, and an amusing, supportive wife with her own hospitality skills.

My welcome was warm and generous and supper customarily over-sized and well cooked and presented. “Oh,” says Alex proudly, “I tell people now I even have a family member in Europe!”

“Yes, you are our firstborn!” jokes 22 year old Precious, laughing.

More like their bloody great grandfather, the way I am feeling by now! It’s high time for bed; every bit of me is aching and it’s difficult to keep awake.

DAY 73 WEDNESDAY 31st JANUARY 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

A quiet day was called for after yesterday’s extreme exertions. I didn’t even get up until almost nine – eleven and a half hours in bed! Considering that most of Africa rises at dawn or before, this was like mid-morning.

Sadly, these days Alex has to spend most of his time at work in the hotel in Kapchorwa; he is my best guide to this area. Precious is herself an incomer, so the walk we took was shorter and less congenial for characters met along the way. She does her best to entertain me though, this warm-hearted young woman.

Talking this evening with a local girl, intelligent and pretty 18 year old Sumaiya, she was full of questions about life in Europe. I’m often the focus of groups of children and young people like this. The subject of family size is often raised. “How many brothers and sisters do you have, Sumaiya?” I asked. She smiled. “Oh, my father he has three wives. With my mother, the first, he has three girls and a boy; with the next one two boys and a girl; and with the third one, there are three more at the moment!”

“Wow!” I exclaimed? “Ten!”

“Oh, and there are the ones outside too..!”

And there you have the African problem in a nutshell. While competitive male virility continues to cause so much suffering to the women of this continent and the rest of us, there is no hope for change. There are already too many of us on board this planet. I fear we are doomed as a species through our own (male) selfishness and pride, and it’s too late. African travelling does not give you a good view of the future for mankind’s survival beyond the next few – increasingly troubled – centuries.

*

I found out a good deal more about Alex’s invidious position in relation to the ownership of this resort. It’s the usual story, so common in Africa, of family jealousy. His grandfather, who liked Alex better than most of his own sons, gave Alex a share in this resort, in partnership with one of the sons.

“They are interested in money only! They come and say, ‘Alex, we want money!’, and I say I DON’T have money! Look at the resort!” They live in Canada and want Alex to do all the work while they take a lion’s share of the income. If he could buy them out, he might have a chance, but land is all important in Africa, and they will have an inflated value for this clifftop, despite the fact it is worth nothing for farming and worth little without investment as a resort. Sadly, Alex hasn’t any trust in them honouring his grandfather’s wishes; he has never seen the gift of ownership document with his own eyes, although verbal witnesses exist. “But here in Uganda everything is corruption: they can just go to the courts and pay. I can’t beat them; I haven’t any money to fight them. The lawyer who has the document is one of their friends…”

So Alex’s choice is to develop a parallel resort on his own land a quarter of a mile away. But that doesn’t have the million dollar sunset view. He will have to rely on his own hospitality skills to make it pay. Maybe he will; maybe he’ll continue to struggle. It’s a shame to see such enterprise and decency thwarted by corrupt, jealous relatives – but not uncommon.

*

Tonight there was a so-called ‘super moon’, combined with a couple of other lunar features not witnessed since 1866. Certainly, the moon rose large and well defined. This was quite a place to watch the full, extra bright moon.

DAY 74 THURSDAY 1st FEBRUARY 2017. SOROTI, UGANDA

The temperature has risen! It’s much hotter on the vast central plain of Uganda after the time I have spent at higher altitudes. I am in Soroti, a not unattractive town heading to the middle of Uganda. I am making a loop through the centre of the country: up north is still inadvisable by its proximity to Southern Sudan and its tendency to tribal upheaval.

My ride was not very scenically interesting once I descended from the slopes of Mount Elgon, curving down for forty miles from Sipi after I said goodbye to Precious and Alex, complete with a promise to return. I shall try.

The views are fine as you wind down the foothills towards the heat haze-shrouded plains; the road’s good now too, all but a few kilometres completed since last year, when I rode miles and miles round heaps of stones on a slippery gravel base. But on my Mosquito, I see Africa at 40mph most of the time; in Uganda watching behind as much as in front. In this country I trust NO driver at all! Once on the plain, though still well over 3000 feet above sea level – but the sea now several hundred miles away – the road becomes flat, wandering through hot bush lands and small strip villages and towns – one of them very bizarrely named ‘Television’. There’s plenty of cultivation – sweet potatoes seem to be popular to judge by the women sitting at the roadside behind piled displays – and the Ugandan population growth ensures that there is little virgin countryside at all outside nationally protected parks and reserves. As the day progressed – I only rode 100 miles today – the scenery became even flatter and I began to cross the huge swampy central lands, reeds and shallow lakes, all of which feed into the Nile, closing in on the road.

*

Sometimes I ride along and slip into reverie (while keeping attention on the mirror and road ahead, I hasten to add; not a moment’s slip of concentration here, in Africa’s worst driving standards!). I fell to wondering… Just what would it be like to be born to this life? To sit at the roadside in searing heat hoping to sell fifty penn’orth of sweet potatoes to support your (average) eight children; to walk mile upon mile with a pile of folded fabric on your head, hoping to sell a couple of yards to a poverty-stricken rural Ugandan; to wait endlessly with your boda-boda, hoping to a find a 20 pence fare; to hoe a field by hand and water the crops from a distant puddle; born to live – and give birth to eight children – in a thatch-covered mud oven, to tend a few goats, a patch of maize, cassava and some matoke; to live in a country riddled from top to bottom by corruption, where your every aspiration is denied? Not to have – even know of – books, music, opera; the freedom to ride motorbikes around foreign lands; not to be able to wander to the Church House Inn for some (usually) civilised conversation; not to have all the facets of culture that make life intriguing? Just to stand and stare, day after day, into the heat on an African mountain; to sit at a roadside watching your cow; to become a security guard standing day after day at the same post outside a business with so little to do; to be an askari, watching through the night, staring at nothing; to be at the beck and call of another, fetching water, weeding fields, carrying firewood up mountainsides; to sit your life at a sewing machine by a city street; to beg for alms; to be frequently hungry; to live with regimes that periodically erupt and enable arbitrary killing sprees of tens of thousands; to ride those dangerous matatus to get where you are going; to sleep on the beaten ground; well, you must understand my thoughts… What would it be like? Here I am, stimulated and fascinated – but able to go home to comfortable Harberton where I can turn a tap and drinkable water comes out, flick a switch and I have light, throw my clothes in a washing machine and I don’t have to go to the river or carry water. Is it just enough to ‘know no better, to know nothing else’? I offer no answers; but sometimes it’s worth asking the question, just to realise how privileged I am, how comfortable and how stimulated the lives we live…

*

Soroti has a mild charm, improved now that I have found a restaurant that can make me a coconut chicken curry instead of the bloody tough old goat and rice that was all the guest house could offer. I am sitting at a balcony on a modern building above the hectic main street, with petrol tankers lumbering by amongst the fleas of small motorbikes. It has, or had, pre Idi Amin, a reasonably strong Asian community. There are a few Hindu and Sikh temples, looking the worse for wear, but on a wander along the length of the arcaded main street, I spotted only two Asian faces. The power-crazed Idi Amin expelled all the 70,000 Asians, the bedrock of Ugandan economy, in 1972, giving them 90 days to get out of the country, nationalising all their assets and confiscating a thousand million US dollars worth of their property. Of course, it backfired: he squandered it on military toys and high living. Then he nationalised and stole about half that value of British investments in tea plantations and the like; that too was wasted effort and inflation hit eye-watering 1000% levels as the Ugandan currency became basket-case. Years later, post Amin, many Asians were encouraged to return, and their property restored where possible, and the economy briefly boomed again, but not many seem to have percolated back to Soroti. This was just one of those phases of Ugandan history that people had to live through. Intellectuals, leaders, military officers and anyone even thought to be possibly subversive to the unhinged dictator were mercilessly tortured and slaughtered. Yet now, fifty years on, there is no reminder of the horrors: just friendly, cheerful people whose memory seems short and anger overcome. I suppose that in a county that has 50% of its population under 15 years, and in which only 2% live to be my age, memory is – literally – short, and history soon wiped clean. Africans live in the moment; they don’t look forward – or back. History is just something that happened; usually to other people.

But Soroti has a few colonial buildings along the colourful main street, with the services of a medium sized town. How, though, can any business make money selling mobile phones and their endless accessories in a town where there are perhaps forty phone shops in the one main street, even in one of these phone-obsessed East Africa countries? I’m sure the ‘phone clutch’ will become a physiological trait in due course, for at least half the people walking the pavements (yes, Soroti has pavements!) is clutching a phone in their palm, thumb curled protectively if, that is, they don’t have it clapped to their ear – even as they ride their motorbikes.

A distinctive volcanic plug of bare rock rises on the edge of town, visible from miles away. It appears to hold the water tanks for the town’s supply. Off the main street, with its bustle and colour, the side streets soon deteriorate into dust, but then meander quite attractively amongst trees and shrubby suburbs. It’s not a bad town at all, despite the thousands and thousands – and I do not exaggerate – of smelly, whirring boda-bodas, for these are the way that so many Ugandans can scratch a meagre living. When I say thousands, I REALLY don’t exaggerate! Every corner, every junction, every destination, every shop, virtually, has men standing outside with their small Chinese motorbikes hoping for that twenty pence fare. There are bicycle taxis too in Soroti, a padded, often fringed, seat on the carrier of old upright bicycles, on which the womenfolk ride side-saddle. Where people walked (and I still do!) half a mile for supper, the staff at my guest house were aghast at the very idea. I suppose they don’t comprehend that I sat all day on a motorbike – and have little faith in the boda-boda boys’ safety anyway! On the whole, my own two feet are preferable, so long as I avoid the gutters and many pitfalls of a dark Uganda street…

*

By riding round and round (I often clock up several kilometres on this task) I found a half-decent hotel off the main street, where a room with a bathroom and a small balcony – I do like to have a view of some sort – on the first floor, costs a non budget-breaking £7.50! My Mosquito can reside in the internal yard safely and the extravagance of £7.50 includes breakfast! What I get in USA in those faceless chain hotels is really little more than this: and they cost £100 upwards… Actually, it’s difficult to think what I DO get that’s better than this: I loathe the air conditioning and have it turned off; I hate the TV and never turn it on (in fact, there’s a TV in my room tonight); I throw all those ridiculous seventeen pillows into a corner; I despise the exploitation of the Hispanic staff and greet them in Spanish; I don’t need a towel for every different part of my anatomy… In fact, I reckon the People’s Guest House in Soroti is just as acceptable as any horrid, snob-named Hampton Inn, Fairfield Suite or Hilton Inn I ever stayed in in USA!

And after that peroration on my privileged status just now: my curry on a street-side balcony, watching the Soroti world go by – frenetically – from above, cost me £3.95 – and that INCLUDED a bottle of beer. Few Ugandan’s can afford such ‘luxury’. Life isn’t fair. These are such decent, generous, friendly people around me – yet they cannot have a fraction of what I have. It makes you think…

DAY  75 FRIDAY 2nd FEBRUARY 2017. KARUMA, UGANDA

Today’s was a tedious, sweaty ride. I am two and a quarter degrees north of the Equator, and the sun as I ride beats down directly on my helmet and neck and the back of my jacket. It can be unbearably hot when I stop moving. There’s no shade: the Uganda Roads Authority administers a strip about twenty feet deep at each side of the road and no development encroaches, not even trees. All there is to do is to count down the kilometres and if I didn’t know that in a few days I will reach much more interesting areas, including Africa’s highest range of mountains, I would be dispirited.

The scenery of central Uganda is flat. It is hot and dry – bushland as far as I can see, with mangoes and acacias, and miles of tall dead grasses, dotted with small habitations of round mud and thatch houses, where the people grow their staples, maize and cassava. Lying away to the south are expansive lakes and swamps; sometimes I pass impressive signs identifying rivers that just do not exist at this season, a muddy puddle limited by the raised road the only evidence. The road is new and in good condition much of the way, carving through the countryside and bypassing several of the smaller towns. There’s light traffic, mainly matatus and numerous Kenyan registered petrol tankers hammering back to Mombassa, hundreds of long miles away – a constant shuttle to bring fuel to the continent’s interior.

Somewhere along the way, shortly after the straggling, ugly town of Lira, I spotted a sign for a coffee shop. It’s the first one since north of Mount Kenya a couple of weeks ago. Run by some religious orphanage institution, half an hour of Jesus music was forgivable for the pleasure of a strong latte and a cinnamon bun! A pair of German tourists were driving all the way from Sipi to my tomorrow’s destination in one day.

*

Sniffing and sneezing, nose water-falling, as my – obviously weak – nasal tubes try again to adjust to a new climate, as they do in Ghana and every time I reenter these humid, hot as hell climates, I pounded on and on. I had decided on Karuma as a sensible destination for tonight: a 200 kilometre run in this heat is quite enough.

It’s always a little thrilling to pass great landmarks. I am now a mile from a bridge across the mighty Nile: a bridge that crosses the Karuma Falls, white water tumbling and rushing down a series of rapids as the, here, Victoria Nile, heads towards Lake Edward and on into the Albert Nile that becomes the White Nile, on its way to feed the Mediterranean, far far to the north.

*

Finding somewhere to sleep wasn’t so easy tonight. I am now on a main thoroughfare from Kampala to the north, and approaching the biggest national park, at Murchison Falls. I’m on a tourist circuit for a day or two, with prices rising and fewer hotels. Tonight finds me in a new hotel and a room more than twice as expensive as last night’s: a mighty £16.25 – £1.25 above budget! Oh well, it includes breakfast and is a half-decent place.

Last night, in that room in Soroti, I was HOT! “Oh, it will get cold in the night, though!” declared Clare, the round, friendly receptionist. There was even a centimetre-thick synthetic Chinese blanket, wild with roses, spread on the bed for the eventuality. Around dawn, I did need to pull the cotton sheet over my naked, sweating body; that’s how ‘cold’ it got, and this with the balcony door open to try to temper the furnace heat. Somehow, it’s cooler here tonight. I wonder why, for I am at about the same 3500 foot altitude. Maybe the huge expanse of the Murchison Falls National Park to the west tempers the heat a bit? Sitting writing by the hotel, a beer by my iPad, the temperature is just right, especially when I consider that this is early February, the dingiest time to be at home in Devon!

DAY 76 SATURDAY 3rd FEBRUARY 2017. PAKWACH, UGANDA

The beginning of the Albert Nile is bridged at the entrance to Pakwach, a steaming hot town most of the way across Uganda to the west, 70 miles or so from Maruma, this morning. The town lies at the head of Lake Albert, and my reason for coming is that the Murchison Falls National Park, the largest in the country, spreads in a vast area to the south, bordered on the west by the lake, across which is Congo. I can ride through this park on my motorbike, an unusual concession that I thought I should use. But the irony is that I have seen many more elephants and various antelopes and strange huge birds outside the park than inside, after I paid my expensive £32 entry fee – that lasts for 24 hours. And, my goodness, elephants are big when you pass twenty yards away on a chugging little blue motorbike. Big and very ragged and tattered. It’s always a thrill, even though I have so little interest in big game animals, to be close to such giant, ponderous old animals. At one point today, a pair of them, enjoying the shade of a thorn tree, effectively blocked off access to the park gate. On the Mosquito I was able to take a very rough bypass!

Murchison Falls Park is probably Uganda’s number one attraction and I have seen more muzungus today than I have since November. But all accommodation in the park (all of it, even the most meagre, probably way exceeding my budget anyway) is full. It’s a weekend in high season. Some of these lodges charge in the hundreds of pounds a night. I was quoted $50 for a simple hut the other side of the park over the phone. I always distrust places that quote me in dollars or euros… Instead, I turned about and rode back across the nearby river to Pakwach and found a very decent, quiet single bungalow room for £15. I dropped my bags and returned to the park gate, paid my fees and rode into the park. I have until 2.00pm tomorrow to get out again. I rode the dusty track 15 kilometres to the ferry crossing across the Victoria Nile and found that you don’t spot much from a piki-piki, even if you ARE allowed to ride through game parks: watching the sandy, slippery track takes most of my concentration. I saw a lot more antelopes, the smallest ones not even rising from the side of the track as I passed; a few ugly warthogs and I did see a giraffe, which always pleases me. At the Nile, a herd of elephants grazed 100 yards away by the water. Tomorrow morning I will return and cross on the ferry, hope to ride up to see Murchison Falls, and exit the park before 2.00pm, when another £32 comes due.

My enemy today was the heat – and lack of sleep. I described last night’s hotel as ‘half-decent’. Sadly, I was wrong! It was incredibly hot, with no fan: “Oh, we are going to put them!” Fine, then don’t charge those rates until you do. It was incredibly noisy, the base thump of the Friday bar, playing to almost no one, permeating my ear plugs, and later the rant of some TV pastor taking over in the early hours. The cook took hours to get my meal ready and I ate too late. I got irritable – and then, through the night, I suffered an odd episode of vertigo, my head spinning sickeningly at the slightest movement. Perhaps all the activity in my struggling nasal areas had affected my inner ear? It’s a horrible affliction I’ve only suffered once before. The result was a lacklustre day and feeling wiped out as I write tonight. It’s been at least 37-40 degrees today, with the humidity high from the proximity of these lakes and Niles. In helmet, jacket, boots, gloves – protective gear that I won’t ride without – it’s not far from unbearable with this humidity, worse than that 50 degree ride in the Namibian desert. It’s not often I take a cold shower, but I did this evening! It didn’t last… I could do with another before bed. And bed tonight is going to be about 8.15! I’m wiped out and have a long day ahead. Over and out for today.

DAY 77 SUNDAY 4th FEBRUARY 2017. MASINDI, UGANDA

A most enjoyable day. Again. I rode right through the country’s biggest national park and saw the very impressive Murchison Falls: the ride was worth it for that alone, for here, in what’s said to be the most dramatic thing that happens to the Nile in its 4258 mile journey, almost the entire river – and this is the Victoria Nile that flows out of the enormous inland sea of Lake Victoria, is poured through a crack in the rocks said by some sources to be six metres wide, and at the most extravagant source, only eight metres wide. It plunges 45 metres in a wonderful, rain-bowed maelstrom, surging and frothing into the wide, forest-fringed river below for its short journey to Lake Albert. It’s quite a sight!

There are thousands of elephants, giraffes and other big game in Murchison, but the closest I came, apart from several dozen antelopes of different varieties, a few ugly warthogs and some fine birds, was when I stopped to look at a vast bird standing perhaps five feet high in a small waterhole by the track. The closest I came, I say, and perhaps the closest I want to come in this circumstance, was that as I put out my leg to lower the side stand, I automatically glanced at the soft edge of the track where the stand would lean. I was putting my foot right down into a line of distinct lion tracks! It did add a gloss of excitement to my day, to know that within the few hours before I stood there, a fully grown lion had passed this way, right where I stood. That’s a thrill. There are quite a lot of lions, leopards and other exciting species here in Murchison. I saw a whole lot of termite mounds masquerading as distant elephants, three buffalo – known as the widow-makers in Africa; one of the most deadly species that kill about 200 humans a year. There’s always that buzz of knowing those animals are there, though, even if I can’t see them from my buzzing motorbike; they are hidden and perhaps watching me…

*

My night was ghastly! Mosquitoes, that I didn’t know were INSIDE the net, ate me alive as I sweated into the pillow. At two, I even got up and took a cold shower to ease the itching, still not realising – until about five, when I made a sweep of the inside of the net and managed the last couple of hours in more comfort. So I was weary again when I got up early. I had decided that I should forego a couple of hours of sleep and make the best use of my expensive park fees. I was at the park gate at 8.15 and rode to catch the nine o’clock pontoon ferry across the Nile to the southern park.

Perched on the rear loading ramp of the yellow pontoon, with half a dozen 4 wheel drive safari vehicles taking the rest of the space, the Mosquito and I were chugged across in a few minutes. Here, where the Victoria Nile opens into Lake Albert, the crossing is only four or five hundred yards. I was soon up the other dusty roads and rolling southwards through the empty bush. It’s a relief, I discovered, to get away from people and homes, shambas and scruffy business shacks for a hundred miles. Here there is only nature, a bit managed, of course, but natural. Baboons lolloped away in their astonishing ugliness, bums looking like appalling injuries, and birds flitted through the dry trees, with the woodland kingfishers making me gasp at the fantastic blue of their plumage – brighter by far than the most dazzling gas flame, with red beaks to boot. Here and there fresh, delicate pink blossom covered trees, a delightful contrast to the dullness of the dry landscape.

I turned north again onto a lesser track for twelve kilometres to the top of the falls, weaving its way through thick bush. As often in Africa, I enjoyed the scarcity of warning signs and organisation: no more than a knee high metal rail to keep me (or trip me?) from plunging into instant wet oblivion. It’s certainly an impressive sight, the world’s longest river compressed into a twenty foot cleft.

*

My park pass lasted until 2.00, so I headed south again on the rolling gravel road. For these few days I will be away from tarmac for several hundred miles; it just doesn’t seem to reach this part of the country, but the gravel roads are good enough. For a few miles I was delighted to pass through the Bukongo forest, a refreshing stretch of equatorial forest, where shade and a sudden profusion of flittering butterflies made a sort of magic after the miles of dry bush and beating sun. Then I was back at the southern park barrier and the shambas, stained hand made brick and tin lock ups and thatched homes started at a line that marks the preserved government property. Back to Sunday people, boda-bodas, mess and chaos. It was only twenty kilometres to Masindi, and although it was only soon after lunch I had decided to stop and find accommodation here. I need to rest!

*

Shameless and cheeky, I did it again. It’s always worth a try. I spotted the Masindi Hotel and the challenge rose before me in an instant. It’s an old colonial relic, set in expansive gardens, with old rooms with metal four posters, hardwood floors, easy chairs on the arcaded balconies and all the old charm of 1923 East Africa (for the privileged of the day, of course).

My line that seldom fails is, “I don’t suppose I can afford to stay here, but if I don’t ask, I won’t know! You know, as an Englishman I love your gardens! I saw this hotel and thought I would LOVE to stay here…” Rooms, it seems, are usually £35 (not a bad price, actually!) but, “Oh, what a shame! My budget’s only £15. I’m travelling for a long time you see, four months, so I have to keep to a budget!”

“Four months? On a piki-piki! Let me see what I can do…”

I have a charming room back in the rear gardens – quiet from the road in front of the more expensive rooms. Constance showed me some of the other rooms. There’s so little difference for the extra £20! “We call this the Hemingway Suite. He stayed here.” It seems he had two plane crashes in a week around here and recovered at the Masindi Hotel. Katherine Hepburn (surely the most beautiful screen star of all cinematic history?) and Humphrey Bogart stayed here during the filming of The African Queen. So for £15, I am staying where Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Hepburn slept. Haha! It’s such fun blagging my way into these places in Africa! I’m glad I travelled in the cheapest squalor all those years: it makes me appreciate the difference so well! It makes me smile tonight, feeling a bit of a fraud in this comfort.

 

 

 

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