I wanted to upload some photos, but the internet won’t cooperate. It may have to wait a few days. I will be back in Harberton on Tuesday next! That’ll take some adjustment… Anyway, here’s the penultimate episode for this safari.
DAY 104. SATURDAY 3rd MARCH 2018. KITALE, KENYA
The weather is frustrating all my plans. I realise that I should have learned from last year’s journey, that I should leave East Africa by the very start of March. But, of course, if I’d done that, I’d probably have ended up with cancelled flights and travel chaos in the European freeze. I can’t win. At least, as I just said to Adelight, I am happy to be stuck in Kitale, not some seedy hotel somewhere on the road. I am welcome here (a Scrabble partner for Adelight!) and the girls seem to fit round me quite comfortably. They all go back to school on Monday.
The rain cleared for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, enabling me to ride out to buy my air ticket from Kitale to Nairobi for the 12th and to order a couple of handmade shirts from Adelight’s shop.
Rico left this morning for Yemen, a two month contract with Medicine sans Frontieres, so even beer time is taken alone while the girls cook supper. A quiet, pretty unproductive day, but fun in this cheerful household.
DAY 105. SUNDAY 4th MARCH 2018.
…and the rain pours on down. I was planning to leave for Kessup today; it’s only a couple of hours away, but with the heavy rain, the journey held little attraction. Better to enjoy family life – the girls left back to their schools this afternoon – and play Scrabble with Adelight, whose appetite for the game is pretty insatiable. Pictures of the snowdrifts in the Harberton lanes probably show that I am in the better place though. But I am impatient being stationary! I never dealt well with sedentary occupation. I suggested to Adelight that if this weather continues all week, she’d better find me a job sewing on buttons in her tailoring shop!
DAY 106. MONDAY 5th MARCH 2018. KESSUP, KENYA
For some reason that I haven’t found out, the room I customarily occupy at the Lelin Campsite at Kessup, is called ‘Mexico’. Some time before ten this morning, a dry but heavily overcast day that remained rainless until a short drizzly shower, by which time I was sitting with William in the shelter of a beer bar, I texted him: ‘Britain intends to invade Mexico later today’. It’s amused him so much through the rest of the day.
The day was mild and dull but my ride, on the tar roads I know rather well by now – and fairly boring they are too – was dry. I will be happy to get away from bad driving and speed humps, of which this road has plenty of examples of both. It’s only 75 miles to Kessup from Kitale, but little enlivens the route. Approaching the top of the Rift Valley escarpment, by which time I am quite high, the temperature drops, but I know that once past Iten and onto the downward road to Kessup’s plateau, 500 feet or so lower, the temperatures rise again. There’s little to see of the expansive view of the Kerio Valley today; the damp ground down there is making for thick haze in the warm air. All that is visible is the small glittering lake, now swollen with a number of attendant ponds and inlets, glinting and shining up through the mists like broken shards of a magic mirror. The rest of the valley is veiled in white mystery. It’s all very changed as the season turns.
I’ve been here so frequently now that I am welcomed back as a regular customer and soon after my arrival, loyal William is back to greet me, having heard my piki-piki pass his shamba. It’s so funny to see him in his proprietorial role: I am ‘William’s mzungu’ in Kessup, and he takes that responsibility so seriously, making sure my room is booked and prepared to my satisfaction, that my meals are ordered, that eggs will be available for breakfast and that the resort makes my stay as comfortable as he thinks suitable for his special white man. It’s very charming, his care and attention. He’s a man of considerable integrity, whose company I enjoy: a happy mutual situation. I see a frisson of irritation sometimes from the staff, but they know I am only here to visit my friend William, so they bite back their annoyance at his demands. It’s funny to watch.
Shortly after my arrival, having dropped my bags and changed, we walked down to the village below the resort to meet Rael, a woman I photographed last year. “Rael has been troubling me for a long time: ‘When will you bring your mzungu again? I want another photograph’.” Well, I am always content to photograph people, particularly so when they ask me. We wandered off down the footpaths of the Kessup plateau, everything now gaining a patina of gooey, greasy red mud: the paths, cars, floors, fences, clothes, the landscapes – and our shoes, slowly building up a slick of thick orangey Africa on the soles. It’s unsightly and grubby: rainy season Africa doesn’t look so fulsome and dazzling as it does under the equatorial sunshine.
We met various of William’s neighbours, jolly, warm-hearted people who welcome William’s mzungu cheerfully. It’s so pleasant to be a celebrity in this congenial region. I photographed Constantine, an older woman, washing numerous shoes in buckets on the path beside a babbling stream; for all the rivers, brooks and streams are running merrily now after the first heavy rains; the sound of running water everywhere. Constantine, middle aged, a widow since 2006, with three children, is bony and thin, suffering, William told me later, from HIV – as do so many East Africans. It’s just a fact of life here, and she is lucky to be alive, now that retrovirals, provided free by the government, as in Uganda, are saving so many lives once so quickly lost to the disease.
Rael was gathering a huge armful of washing from a wire fence and bushes by the path, anticipating the light shower that followed. We went to her simple, but homely house to take photos. A round-faced woman, she loved the photos I brought back, that William distributed before Christmas. I have made many friends here in Kessup with my portraits. William has proudly shown my photo book around too, creating a sort of legend around the mzungu who’s happy to mix in the villages and drink local bulsa (millet beer) with the people. William has been a great guide to his community: kindly, well liked, tactful and intelligent.
Rael’s is a tidy, small house of vertical wood planks, stained black, and topped by the usual zinc roof. A polished concrete floor and a living room lined in boarding covered by a stretched open-woven net fabric; it is decorated by political posters: ‘African presidents past and present’; ‘One country: One people’. A couple of cards wishing success in exams exhort her children to learn well and a few strings of Christmas tinsel hang across a corner, and there are simple, locally made wooden settees with foam cushions, and a couple of plywood coffee tables with curling blue-green painted tops. The living room is flanked by bedrooms: over one of the internal doors someone has scratched ‘girls’s bedroom’ in charcoal. There’s a many-doored sideboard, apparently largely empty of possessions with a sooty cooking cauldron sitting on top. The walls are painted neatly in cream and the doors and window frames to match the coffee tables. It’s a well cared for, comfortable small home with no frills whatsoever.
And then we repair to a beer bar, the Rock. Here we sit and converse comfortably for a couple of hours; William snapping his fingers that his white man will be served as he (William) thinks he deserves.
“I need soft food!” I told Joseph, the cheerful, rotund cook. He won’t be here much longer: he’s planning his own independent restaurant up the hill in Iten, where he lives. My teeth cause a lot of sympathy and a bit of humour. I might as well make the joke against myself, it gets me softer food! So tonight Joseph well chopped the chicken that he served as a sort of curry, with mashed potato and (bloody) fried cabbage. It’s cool now, eating round the small portable brazier under one of the thatched shelters. This is a different experience of Africa, without the sun and with light rain showers feeding the slippery underfoot mess as we slip and slither the narrow paths. But my welcome remains the same. ‘William’s mzungu’ is back for a couple of nights.
DAY 107. TUESDAY 6th MARCH 2018. KESSUP, KENYA
William likes to have a programme. You can tell he was a policeman – “Trained by British! British, they don’t like nonsense! They are STRAIGHT!” I wish I could subscribe to his total conviction about my countrymen and women: once upon a time maybe… I’m not so sure that the Britain I live in now, the mean-spirited Brexit, ‘populist’ Britain of the present, has much relation to the one he admires so unquestioningly.
“We have 26 minutes left! But there’s no hurry…” he contradicts himself in the beer bar as we sit beneath a thatch shelter out of a light rain after our half day of meeting and greeting. He often pulls out his mobile to check the time. He likes punctuality and a schedule.
And for me, I am too relaxed to bother much about clock time. I’m pretty content just to go as we please, for it’s the way I enjoy best to spend days in Africa, just wandering the paths, meeting the locals and taking their photos whenever I can. And today I captured another dozen people of rural Kessup on film; entered their houses; drank fibrous, grainy bulsa – local ‘beer’ from millet and maize – with them; studied their vegetable fields; investigated their kiosks; poked about their compounds; greeted their children and watched their animals. These were all William’s neighbours and compatriots, people amongst whom he has lived his life. They welcome ‘William’s mzungu’ warmly and suffer me to pry and ask questions, comment and investigate their lives.
The day was close and warm; the humidity high from the standing water, mud and threatening rain. But it remained dry until mid-afternoon once again, by which time we had shelter in our beer bar. Now, as I sit in bed after a huge supper (it’s 8.11 as I write that sentence!); supper of one of William’s cockerels, sacrificed as a present to me, the rain is pattering on the zinc roof of my room here above the expansive Kerio Valley, invisible in the darkness and humid haze. I hope so much that the rain comes only in the night, for my last few days of riding are upon me now; maybe two or three more excursions – and then it can (and probably will) rain as much as it likes…
It’s restful here in Kessup. Once again, I am the only guest here, so the staff come and chat with William and I, and the waitress finishes off our supper dishes. It’s an odd set up, not very well managed; certainly not to William’s exacting standards of what is suitable for his own white man and second best friend (after his daughter studying in Australia) but I like my room, ‘Mexico’, and sleep long and satisfyingly in the silence and comfortable bed – almost another ten hours last night. It’s deeply silent now and warm in bed, having taken supper huddled over a brazier in a draughty shelter, for with the rain the temperature has plunged. Looks like an 8.30 bedtime again.
Sitting on the embankment above the bulsa maker’s house, I was smiling down at her, in her terrace yard. “Eh, Mzungu, you have a nice smile!” she called up.
Yeah, lady, little do you know, I can remove most of it with my fingers… You have to laugh at this adversity. Well, I do.
DAY 108. WEDNESDAY 7th MARCH 2018. BROOKE, KENYA
A glorious day, after the rains, and a lovely ride. There was that delicious scent of a washed spring day, the rains having rinsed away the dust; the equatorial sun beaming down and the temperature having lost the relentless, oppressive intensity of the past weeks. The rains have released all manner of subtle aromas: sensations that few car drivers can ever enjoy.
Leaving William around ten, I rode slowly down into the Kerio Valley, now one of my favourite Kenyan landscapes: the long slow curves and sweeping bends that descend with vast views into the depths of the Rift Valley. The views soften and fade into unlimited distance with the haze created by the recent rains slowly evaporating into gentle mists, the sun bright but softened now.
My road dropped deep into the valley, passing the end of the dirt roads that would have led me back across the valley floor and up onto my favourite road, twisting and climbing back up to Kaptagat: the road I enjoyed so much twice on this trip. But it’s of dust and dirt, rock and rut, and probably now of mud and slipperiness. Tempted but wise now, I rode on across the valley floor and onto the curls back up to Kabarnet on the other rim. Kabarnet is one of Kenya’s uglier towns, not a place to linger, but followed by one of the loveliest roads, a slow meander through the hills via the village of Sacho, on a road that last year was still unfinished and dusty, but now smooth and delightful, the road following ridges sometimes little more than fifty yards wide, that drop away into the wooded and cultivated steep valleys on either side, people waving and greeting as I ride. Today I went through a multitude of landscapes: the heights of the Kessup plateau under its great tree-hung wall; down the slopes to the dry valley floor; back up to the forests on the other side; down again to the dry valley floor with acacia and aloes, rock and semi-desert; through commercial forests with big sawmills, ruts and severe potholes; the brief punishment on the main East African Highway that I have striven so hard to avoid for three months – but was unavoidable for fifteen kilometres, where petrol tankers drive like racing cars and the road has perhaps the worst accident statistics in Africa. It’s a place where dozens regularly die in ghastly multiple vehicle accidents. It’s a road completely inadequate for the traffic that uses it, on which drivers take the most horrifying risks, with overtaking that must be seen to be believed.
Finally, onto a road once again unaccountably outlined on my map in green as a road of beauty – that is far from exceptional, except for the final 15 kilometres, when the road passes fine tea estates and distant rolling hills. I wonder who decided on the green outlines on my map? I could show them some real beauties not far away.
My reason for the journey was a promise I had made to Nashon, the mechanic who saved my Mosquito last year when teeth stripped from cogs in the starter mechanism. A throughly decent man, quiet and shyly unassuming, he proved to be an excellent mechanic and a man of integrity, stripping my engine to its component parts and swiftly and efficiently rebuilding it over a couple of days; stressful days for me until I understood that Nashon wasn’t a boda-boda butcher, but a knowledgable man. He’s emailed me a few times to find out how my journey was going, and to tell me that he has contacts who could supply the parts I need to get the bike back to full spec. We have decided that it’s a project for the start of my next safari in East Africa, whenever that will be. I seem to have committed myself to some sort of visit later in the year, with promises to Adelight, William, Alex – and now Nashon… This journey has been different from many: it has been about revisiting newly made friends, and of course, old and valued ones in Rico and family. I have a lot of respect for and liking of Kenyan people; they are respectful and warm-hearted, polite and friendly. Education levels are generally reasonably high and people cosmopolitan and welcoming to strangers. Travelling here is easy and congenial.
Nashon took me to his nearby home. He lives in a communal rooming house: two parallel rows of individual rooms – about twelve foot square is the norm: a sheet and a half of most construction materials – with shared latrines and showers. Through economic necessity, cultural habit and gregariousness, the majority of urban Africans live thus. All possessions are kept in that room: the bed screened by a curtain, the rest – the TV, a wood-framed settee, clothes, cooking pots, water containers and so forth fill the room. Socialising, cooking and food preparation are, of course, mainly done out of doors in Africa. There’s none if the obsessive search for privacy that typifies European life; just as well, really, for everyone lives in such close proximity. I often find myself trying to explain how different life is when the climate forces you to spend most of the time indoors.
A mzungu at home excites a deal of interest! Many small children came to politely shake my hand and inspect the white visitor. Nashon’s two children, a tall young girl and her junior brother watched or went about their after school business as we chatted, his wife kindly bringing us tea and bread. The sentimental Victorian version of Jesus, pale and wan with all the racial prejudice of the time, gazed at us from several religious posters and bass beats reverberated from the nearby busy market streets. Nashon lives a hundred yards from his oily workshop, right in the heart of bustling Brooke. He’s a throughly decent man, and one I trust to care for my Mosquito.
For a few kilometres in the late morning I had the unpleasant experience of riding through a cloud of flying termites. They have a very brief chance of forming new colonies around a new queen, for their wings fall off after a few hours and the vast majority of these insects – even the ones that don’t squash into a sort of scattered omelette on my goggles, helmet, beard and jacket – will die very soon if they form no new colony. Another of nature’s odd quirks.
Apart from the unpleasant few miles on the dangerous highway, this was a gentle, enjoyable day, riding calmly along at 30 and 40 miles an hour in light traffic and lovely, varied scenery, although I have travelled all these roads before. Now I am back at the Brooke Hotel (Brooke Bond country) across the very busy, incredibly noisy main road from carpets of tea that stretch to hilly horizons. Unfortunately, this hotel – sufficient for my needs – is beside this road that carries vast quantities of goods to Lake Victoria, the big city of Kisumu, Uganda and beyond. Right outside are speed humps that cause gigantic pantechnicons and container wagons to apply air brakes and bounce their trailers noisily over the humps. This time, I have taken a room further from the road. With the window shut, it may be almost bearable. If I come here for Nashon to put new piston rings and new parts for my starter and brakes next safari, I shall try other options for sleeping – places further from this road. But it’s reasonably priced here and easy to find. For a night, it’ll do. For any more, I will look further.
It has not rained all day. If my last couple of rides are as good as today, I will end my trip on a contented note…
DAY 109. THURSDAY 8th MARCH 2018. KAPTAGAT, KENYA
It’s probably unwise to look at the kitchen before eating in Africa. Oh well, I’ll see what arrives for my supper. It was the Kaptagat Hotel that never got an order correct. The kitchen is a large shed-like place of empty cupboards, empty surfaces and stained walls, with grubby broken windows – a kitchen built for colonial banquets, now reduced to cooking the only guest’s supper; the one with the dicky teeth. Well, cooking food over charcoal is a hot business and kills most things efficiently. I was only thinking today, that I have been travelling for almost four months, eating and drinking anything, including local water (about two small bottles of rip-off, one use plastic water so far!), street food, poorly washed utensils and all the rest, and I have remained totally healthy. It’s a question of immunity as much as anything else; another reason to resent the ridiculous phenomenon of ‘pure’ drinking water sold in pollution bottles. The more you drink of that stuff, the less immune you get, and the more of that ‘pure water’ poison you have to buy from utterly unscrupulous corporations. So damned cynically clever! Apart from my bloody teeth, and the muscle in my neck that has been troubling me for weeks, I am in disgustingly good health.
This has been another glorious day. I awoke to a completely cloudless sky. When you have been fearing rain for your journey, the sunshine is like an extra gift. And this is such mellow, benign sunshine after the past weeks. It’s sinking just a little lower in the northern skies now from its overhead harshness and gives a softer light already.
After goodbying Nashon, (who kindly gave me a whole kilo of local tea), I rode off in the general direction of Lake Victoria, gratefully turning off the main road after twenty kilometres or so onto the small roads that wind and curl up into the Nandi Hills, where I rode in January, crossing the Equator yet again, tipping back into the Northern Hemisphere until I fly down to Nairobi on Monday. I had promised William that if I passed through the busy hill town of Kapsabet, I would seek out his son, Collins, to say hello. Narrow faced and thin, unmistakably like his father, he runs his own small business that seems to be selling films or downloads from a small shop in the town centre.
Soon I was off onto a smaller road that slowly clambered up even higher into the Highlands. Here thick coniferous forests began to line the road for a while, reminding me of the Scottish highlands – except for overloaded matatus and grinding ancient lorries belching black clouds of diesel into the wide skies. Hills rolled away to the south and I passed through many firewood and rusty zinc villages, grateful that I don’t have to spend my life condemned to such drabness.
I’d planned a route that would involve only five miles of the hideous Highway that I can’t avoid when I need to cross from the south to the north, for it bisects the country. Sometimes, however, I suspect that the drafters of my map just guessed, for I never saw the road to the right that would bring me to Kaptagat in little more than 25 kilometres. Maybe the fault is mine, for I assume that a road printed importantly in yellow will be a decent road between towns, not a dirt track that anonymously leaves the horrible flying highway. Perhaps that’s what this ‘main road’ was. As it was, ten kilometres further on, I found another rocky earth track, that a week ago would have been thick with dust, that boda-boda boys told me would bring me to Kaptagat – “eventually”, they didn’t add. Where I went, I am not sure, even now, but it wasn’t where I thought I was… It did bring me to Kaptagat – eventually – but by a devious route, past a halt on the old colonial East African Railway called Plateau, on an appalling road in the process of being built: the worst condition for riding as you have to deviate onto vaguely flattened, rutted edges of fields for mile upon mile. But the sun shone down from a cottonwool sky and if all wasn’t right with the world, it wasn’t very bad.
And now, here I am in my funny old colonial hotel room again, with a huge log fire spitting and crackling in the grate. I’m using it to dry washing just now as the evening is ironically so much warmer than those of mid-January. It’s fun, though, to have a flickering cedar wood fire in the heights of equatorial Africa!
It’s so sad that the bar in this hotel fills up in the evening with country men committing slow suicide with ‘KK’ (Kenya Kane spirit). Like unregulated local ‘wirigi’, it is a violently strong spirit, much cheaper than beer, that kills millions of Africans, the majority of whom (I don’t think that’s such an exaggeration, with men at least) have an alcohol problem. Little investigation is made into most causes of death on this continent, but I’d warrant that a significant number are from sclerosis and related disease, not to mention alcohol related accident.”Yes, they come here to get drunk,” says Ellen, watching as three men appear to spar off, poking chests and arguing loudly, their wives and numerous children at home eating poor food and probably fearing their return. “And they are young men,” says Mike Egan, a young, very athletic professional runner who trains up here at Kaptagat. “But look at them and you think they are forty. They can work all day to make money to drink; and finish the money!” Remove all alcohol and put the women in charge, and this continent would change overnight, and might actually begin to work…
Mike is one of the many runners who train at Kaptagat and Iten, in ‘the home of champions’ as the road signs say, thanks to its many running and athletic successes, with the advantage of its altitude. Mike now has Turkish nationality having lived in England for eight years. He now runs marathons for his adopted country. I think the delightful Sir Mo has trained up here also.
The Mosquito has to be bump started from cold every time now. I was reminded by one of the hotel boys that it began here in Kaptagat; I thought it was just the cold mornings then, but now I realise the problem was beginning. Nashon reckons it is the piston rings, for the exhaust is black and I am having to add 100mls or so of oil in the mornings. We’ve sort of agreed that he will replace the rings, timing chain, kick start seal, oil filter, brake shoes, brake pads, and probably the two damaged starter cogs when I next come back.
Effectively, this is the last night on the road for the early months of 2018. Tomorrow I plan to ride gently back to Kitale (‘home’) for my final weekend. This has been a less ‘linear’ trip than most, focussing instead on visiting acquaintances and seeing places in more depth after last year’s introductory ride. At this stage, I begin to fear being at home, amongst things familiar, without the stimulation of fairly constant novelty, and without being a celebrity – as any mzungu finds himself here. In other ways, it’s time to stop moving (briefly: because I have summer plans already) and be part of my own community for a while to reestablish the balance.
Supper was actually rather good. Well chopped chicken in a thick stew, with rice and some small spinach. I went round and tipped the cook. He deserves encouragement!
DAY 110. FRIDAY 9th MARCH 2018. KITALE, KENYA
The circle complete; the journey just about done. I am back at base in Kitale after another sunny day – just descending into a light shower at 5.30 as I wait for the big hand to reach the top of the clock for Beer O’clock. It was a gentle ride today: no rush, as I was only riding 120 kilometres or so back to Kitale. Once again my map defied my expectations; maybe this was a road built since it was drafted? It was certainly a new road; the signposts differing by as much as five kilometres from the distance markers at the edge of the new black tarmac. I thought I was going back to Iten, the town above Kessup on the rim of the great Kerio Valley. Somehow I arrived in hateful Eldoret, twenty-odd miles away, my least favourite Kenyan city, where I had to negotiate a short stretch of the horrible East African Highway again. Here all the traffic: the petrol tankers, the container wagons, the articulated trucks, the antique lorries, the thousands of matatus, the racing private cars – and several thousand wriggling boda-bodas – all push their way through Eldoret’s High Street, a single carriageway lined with shops and businesses, blocked by wares, slowed by deliveries, filled with diesel fumes and thronged with pedestrians, many of whom want to be on the other side of the road at any time. It is hideous and ghastly; a place to avoid at all costs – but I found myself joining the bedlam until I could turn north again and continue on the somewhat longer but rather more relaxing country route.
So, back for the final weekend of my journey. I fly down to Nairobi on Monday at noon, and out to Amsterdam at midnight. There’ll be time to take stock on the eight hour flight, but never enough time to adapt to the new experience of being home, being still and being just back to familiar things. Sometimes I love it, but I know too that I get bored very soon and will be searching for activity and direction within hours! It’s just the way I am…
Coming home can be as challenging as starting a new journey in unknown lands.
Oh well, I have all that dental work to look forward to! I expect that’ll cost just about as much as spending a winter in Africa too.
In case you don’t get to read the last three days, it’s interesting to note that the entire trip has cost me about: £680 for the Ghana section, £2850 for the East African section and £1110 in air fares. I reckon that living at home costs almost the same, if you take off the air fares. About £31 a day, and that includes my accommodation, subsistence, transport costs and all incidentals, including quite a sum given away. They used to say that winter on the Costa del Sol was cheaper than staying home in Britain. In my opinion, Africa’s a good deal more rewarding than the Costa del Sol – although it’s difficult to get Sky TV and the tabloids.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my future travels these past days. It may be that I get an Ethiopian visa in November, fly out and get the bike fixed, stay with Rico and family a bit, see Alex and William, ride to Ethiopia for a few weeks, and then fly somewhere completely different. I’ve spent six winters in Africa and maybe I should take a trip somewhere else – the Antipodes for a short time, maybe? But I have come to enjoy the Mosquito (with Rico’s replacement seat) after initially despising it as too small and too slow. I see now that it is an ideal touring bike in some ways: lightweight, versatile enough that I can take it anywhere with confidence for I know I can lift it and pick it up manually if absolutely required. It’s astonishingly economical at 93mpg; simply engineered and reliable and adaptable, with parts easily available in much of Africa. I don’t NEED speed, for I am here to observe and enjoy. How can anyone ride a BMW 1200 here, with its bulk, extreme weight and complexity? I would like to investigate just how I would deal with customs if I were to ride from here down to South Africa with the Mosquito, either leaving it there for a year or repatriating it by flying it back up – it’s light enough to do that.
Well, plenty of time to think it over and decide on my septuagenarian safaris! ‘Who knows tomorrow?’ Is a well worn West African phrase. Who, indeed?