EAST AFRICA 2018 – Journal fifteen.

Here’s the last episode for now: the last three days just to complete the set. I shall miss writing my travel journal so much. It’s become the one and only real discipline of my footloose travels – and, I sometimes think, a large justification for them. And thank goodness I did it for all these years – the first diary notes began – (astonishingly enough for a 14 year old) on my first ever trip out of Britain in 1964: Scout camp in the Alpes Maritimes. Of the 4270 days I have spent out of the UK, I have the events of 3958 days recorded in writing, almost eleven years. You know, if I hadn’t written it down, it would be largely forgotten. Just the process of retelling the stories, let alone keeping the record, impresses so much more onto my memory.

Well, here’s the end of the 2018 safari – with photos to follow, now that I have reached home and fast internet…

DAY 111. SATURDAY 10th MARCH 2018. KITALE, KENYA

A last blast of heat before I leave. I rode to and through the Marich Pass, where the highlands of Kenya drop down to the northern deserts, that stretch far to the north across Lake Turkana into South Sudan and Ethiopia – and the temperature today was probably in the high 30s. Rico lived up there, in Lodwar, way up towards the northern border, when I visited him in 2001 and 2002. In 2002, on the African Elephant, I remember this as the worst road I travelled all the long way from the south of South Africa to the north of Kenya. That’s about all I remember of that ride; today I recognised virtually nothing, and a policeman at the barrier where the desert started, laughed at my memory and assured me the road is now tarred all the way to Lodwar.

It’s about 60 miles from Kitale to Marich, starting up on the high plateau and rising even higher to Kapenguria, and then dropping sharply down the escarpment on a dramatic, scenic road through cedars and pines into the winding valleys that lead eventually along a tumbling river onto the lower plains. The road is quiet; not so many people live up there, and, for once in East Africa, countryside outweighs urban and agricultural sprawl. The landscape changes from fertile farmlands of the highlands to semi-desert filled with thorn trees and aloes and red rocks. A little further, and the people would change too, to Turkana tribespeople; colourful ethnic peoples of the desert.

Astonishing that so few miles can present such different views of Africa. The desiccated, furnace desert, where even the speed of my little bike couldn’t prevent me feeling sweatily uncomfortable, to the chill, an hour later, of the highland forests in light, cool rain under boiling blue clouds. This, in ten miles.

*

The diaphragm for my carburettor did not arrive from Cor’s contact in Nairobi. I rather wish I’d got Nashon to get it sent up by his contact instead; he seemed very efficient and had most of the parts in stock. Oh well, it will have to wait now until next time I am in Kitale to be fitted. This was my last ride for now, bump started with Marion’s help, sent home from school because she hadn’t paid the £22 fee towards the maintenance of the school bus! She can’t return until she takes the outstanding amount. Scovia was sent home for not paying the correct tuition fees. £11 had been expected by the parents, but the school decided on double that, and sent home those who’d only paid the lower amount. It’s a rough system (with, of course, no redress, and no health and safety assessment for the girls summarily excluded and sent away) but it had the benefit for me of having much of the cheerful family together again for my last weekend.

*

For several hours in total – and sometimes I DO regret my intense stubbornness – I wrangled obstinately with the frustrations of KLM and Kenya Airways and their websites and call centres – with complete lack of satisfaction. All I was trying to do was to select a seat on the flight home, as the website claims I can do up to 48 hours before the flight. Oh boy, why do I persist? It’s my innate sense of hatred of the untruths told by corporate bodies, I suppose. Why tell me I can, when I can’t? And why question what’s written on their own sites: where had I seen it? On your ****** website, Victoria! In the end, all I got was the insult of a bland message reminding me of the benefits of my membership when ‘Victoria’ cut communication. Obstinacy is an expensive quality.

DAY 112. SUNDAY 11th MARCH 2018. KITALE, KENYA

The dirt that came out of my riding jacket was impressive. It’s done 8500 kilometres, much of it on very dusty African rural roads. Happy Scovia and I washed it with scrubbing brushes on the floor of the shower. This was a day of last chores, for my safari is done now. I washed the Mosquito, that has done so well this year; no breakdowns, no punctures, no trouble beyond a few hiccups solved with a couple of minor electronic transplants, and the current bump starting.

My bag’s packed – unusually I have to carry a bag on these big journeys, beyond the cabin luggage: I bring home my big riding boots. Helmet, gloves, goggles, riding jacket and trousers all stay here in Rico’s big workshop.

Ironically, after all yesterday’s hassle, I booked an exit row seat in the plane by checking in within one minute of it opening. Then we all went to the Kitale Club for supper together: Adelight, Scovia, Marion, Rose, Shamilla and a few more extended family. In Africa you never quite know who’ll be in the party.

Equally ironically, I started a dose of horrible catarrh. Look back at the state I was in shortly after my arrival in Ghana and it confirms my weakest point (apart from the teeth!) is my nasal tubes. As soon as there’s indication of a change of climate, the catarrh begins. I didn’t expect it until Harberton; the change of Kitale weather has triggered it already.

I leave Kitale on a plane at 12.15 tomorrow. Why it’s so late I don’t know, as most of the flights leave at 8.30 or 9.00, but I am content to spend less time in Nairobi. Once the journey home starts, I just want the process to be over. There’s no romance or glamour in international air travel any more. I remember how exciting was my first flight, back in 1965. None of my friends in those days had even flown in an aeroplane, and there was I flying to America in one of those long thin cigar tube planes – the old 707s. Now it’s an undignified process to get from A to B.

DAY 113. MONDAY 12th MARCH 2018. KLM to AMSTERDAM and BRISTOL

At nine minutes past midnight this giant 747 lumbered into the warm skies over Nairobi and turned north for it’s long journey back to the cold. Another trip is over. They’ve become so much a part of my life now; so’s the difficult period of coming home, when all the moving stops and no one around me has seen what I’ve seen. There’s a brief initial curiosity, then it’s just me and my memories and an occasional friend indulgent enough to listen to a few stories. Oh, yes, it’s more unsettling for me to get home than be ‘on the road’!

*

Happily, my Kitale flight started three hours later than scheduled, or I’d have had to spend those three hours sitting in the check in areas of Jomo Kenyatta Airport, as I couldn’t even drop my big bag until 6.00. Better to sit on a trolley by the airstrip in quiet Kitale, watching the slaty storm clouds rolling round the skies; skies into which the small plane was shortly to throw itself for an initially rather bumpy ride to Nairobi, just an hour and a quarter away, back past places I rode in the past weeks. But it’s not easy to recognise the landscape from above; all I recognised was that lovely road from Eldama Ravine to Kaptagat that sweeps up the edges of the magnificent, forested slopes of the Kerio Valley, in my favourite part of Kenya. Another mzungu, a South Carolinian resident in Kitale working for a water NGO was also catching my 23.59 flight to Europe, so I, ever the economist (cheapskate?) suggested we shared a taxi from Wilson Airfield to JKA, a ghastly hour’s struggle through Nairobi’s congestion – but so much more polite and disciplined than Kampala’s utter mayhem. From my companion’s clean-cut appearance and provenance I kind of anticipated the way the conversation might go. I think I disappointed him when I answered the inevitable question from a southern states American: “Oh, absolutely confirmed atheist!” Funny how you can tell instinctively! Still, he was pleasant enough and it cut my taxi fare from £11 to half. That’s half the fare to go back next time… There’s no public transport between the two airports; indeed, I don’t think there’s a way to get to the international airport by public means.

*

It’s been 16 weeks since I left home. These journeys are always a mixed bag of course: parts dragged by and other parts were engrossing and undertaken with a big smile spread over my face. There was less novelty on this journey; a problem I found by the time I got to my fourth southern African winter. But I also saw some of the region in much greater depth; the highlights being the area all round the Kerio Valley; the delightful hills of south western Uganda, from my base in Kabale and, despite the filth and less friendly people, the four days that I rode on appalling dirt roads down the western side of Uganda. Biggest thrill – and this from someone who tells everyone that he’s the only mzungu who doesn’t come to Africa to spot wild animals – was putting my side stand down on those lion prints in the trackside dust in Murchison Park!

It’s the people, the people, the people, I come to meet, observe, interact with. After so many visits I am building up a network in various parts of Africa. Being an ‘old’ white-haired mzungu helps so much: I am completely unforgettable, and a weird phenomenon, still riding a piki-piki apparently wondrous distances at my age. Being a minor celebrity like this makes it so easy to talk with and enjoy the people I meet on my road. It’s such fun.

Of course, the greatest pleasure of my East African travels has been deepening my fond friendship with Rico, strengthening still further the bond that we instinctively formed when, back in the mists of time, half a lifetime ago, we discovered Africa together that first time. It’s dominated my travelling life – which is pretty much what defines me now – since then, and he has hardly lived back in Europe since that journey, making his life entirely in Africa, with all the hardships, tough times and rewards that that has brought. Now, to his companionship I have added the friendship of his warm, admirable wife – and all those lovely Rico Girls. Just to look at Scovia makes me smile every time I see her: it’s a reflex that is uncontrollable. A few times I have wished I was forty years younger! Haha. It’s been so terrific to have that base for these last two journeys. We all rub along as an extended family: a relationship much fonder than just passing friends. Even those teenage girls express joy when I turn up. That’s precious: I’ve often said that my idea of hell would be to be confined to a ‘seniors’ community’ (worse than death would be one in Florida!). It’s such a joy to be amongst that family of teenagers, young women and children – as it always is to be around young people.

*

There are features from which I shall be extremely happy to get away: Ugandan driving, and to a lesser extent, all East African drivers. The Kenyan obsession with multiple speed humps. Barking dogs in the night. Concern for the safety of my wallet, passport, camera, iPad. Anxiety of breakdown and punctures. Looking for a place to sleep every night when I am on the road. Thin gassy beer adulterated with sugar. Lethally slippery bathroom floors and shower heads that drip on you for hours afterwards when you use the lavatory. Looking out at the world through heavy steel security grills on every window and any screen door. Margarine and soggy bread. Endlessly answering the same questions: about my children, football, ‘take me to your country’, my religion, how much everything costs. Indicators: I have ridden 8500 kilometres and still have no idea what people mean when they indicate. Sometimes they may mean: ‘I am turning left/ right’ – but rarely. They may mean ‘it’s safe to overtake’ (often it’s not); ‘it’s not safe to overtake’ (often it is); it may be a greeting between matatu drivers; it may mean ‘I’ve forgotten to cancel the indicator’; it may mean ‘I’m not concentrating’ (frequently) or ‘I’m half asleep’, or ‘I’m on my phone and have no more hands left’; it may even just mean ‘hello mate’. Who knows?

And best of all, I shall be so thankful to get away from bloody fried cabbage! In fact, I am looking forward to eating no more meat until I am back in Africa, whenever that may be…

…and, as I said, the other day, I seem to have slipped into promises to various folk to return before too long. Well, that’s fine; my travels have changed and matured. I find great pleasure in visiting friends; walking the footpaths of Kessup with William and ending up in a beer bar in congenial conversation; listening to Alex and Precious’s dreams and advising them; being welcomed back fondly to quaint, cheerful hotels like the White Horse Inn; restaurants, cafes and bars I have used before; being recognised on the road and welcomed into so many simple, generous homes.

*

Ultimately though, one thing that these repeated journeys in Africa have undoubtedly done for me is to make me recognise my good fortune and privileges and make me content with my own very easy lot in life…

 

 

 

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