DAYS 9 to 14. DECEMBER 20th to 25th 2018. KITALE, KENYA
There’s been something of a hiatus in my diary writing. My iPad travelled to Nairobi while I waited up here in Kitale. Fortunately, the infrastructure of Kenya is such that I was able to very efficiently courier the device door to door (with G4S) to an Apple approved repairer in the capital, where they fixed it in a day and returned it by the same courier. I sent it on Thursday and received it yesterday, Christmas Eve, the previous day being Sunday. Four days, in East Africa: that’s efficient. It did cost £250 for the repair but that’s the international price.
Now I have my device back (lacking sensitivity, however, and forcing me to type much harder and it’s making many mis-keys. Bah…) and the journal can continue.
The days pass quietly here in Kitale, home for now. Adelight and I are comfortable company, we can go to town companionably – she doing her shopping, me observing street life patiently. At home we eat simple breakfasts and lunches – sliced brown bread, eggs, jam, margarine, peanut butter and so forth. At night we eat rice, spaghetti, ughali with meat and sauce, filling food. Finances are tight, always tight in Africa. There are many demands on scant resources: endless school fees and costs, services and repairs; mouths to feed, clothes to buy, even if they are second hand. It’s not easy to balance expenses against irregular income, and Rico the only wage earner just now. Adelight and Scovia have a scheme afoot to start mushroom farming. With Scovia probably able to sell ice to Eskimos and sand to Arabs, it’s a practical proposition to create some independence.
Early each evening, Rico and I enjoy our beers on the porch. We met 31 years ago and of course we don’t think we have changed at all! The conceit of age. He turned 70 this year, me next year. For both of us Africa has been the largest influence of our lives, he living and dealing with it every day, almost since that first Sahara crossing in 1987/8, with a large extended family, and me returning so frequently, so much of my thought and character shaped by my experiences on this varied and wonderful continent. It’s an easy friendship, based on many shared values and our appreciation of African life, a significance the very start of which we shared on our first African journey together. Pity the beer’s not better, but I can’t expect everything and for now the contentment of family life is enough. We are a small household right now, just Adelight and Rico, Marion and Scovia and baby Maria. The other girls are mostly away with their birth families, so it’s quiet.
Today is Christmas Day, my sixth Christmas running in Africa. It’s warm and sunny but there’s really no spare money to celebrate. Everyone is accepting of this, thankful for what they DO have, rather than what they would like to have. There are no presents this year. I’ve given the two girls some money; we all went for drinks and chicken and chips at the Kitale Club yesterday, that strange colonial hangover, its old golf club officials with British names until the last few decades. Photos of old colonials twist and curl in fading frames, the service is terrible, the food mediocre, but it’s a place to meet and relax beside the greens, gazing across the clipped grass, so unAfrican, to the blue slopes of Mount Elgon behind blossoming trees. The sun is bright up here at 6000 feet and the clouds white against the blue of the equatorial sky. Some men putt on the nearby green, a pump roars behind the bouncy castle; there’s a blue pool and children play as we drink and chat, and gaze at the horizon. Cows graze the distant fairways. Scovia and Marion enjoy a glass of wine, “Only for birthday, Christmas and 31st!” laughs charming Scovia, 20, large round earrings glinting in the sunlight.
And today I made personal history: I went shopping for groceries in town – on Christmas Day, much the same as any other day in Kitale. Food tends to be fresh, unprocessed, unfrozen and bought every day. You can’t store fresh food in this climate, you must eat it as much from field to plate as possible. We needed more beer, a chicken and the endless supply of two bread loaves (all cased in plastic of course). I added a pineapple and a bottle of Kenyan rose wine from Naivasha. It is Christmas after all, a time for treats, however small. Adelight has cleaned the house, the girls helping, for everyone has their task. It’s pretty much an ordinary day, except for the fir branch in the corner with its winking lights. This is not the material festival it has become in the ‘wealthy’ North…
DAY 15. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 26th, 2018. KITALE, KENYA
Christmas is over and done once again. Now it’s time to begin to think about my safari…
Our festival was low key but happy and content. Adelight, having cleaned the house and washed all the floors, cooked apparently contentedly in the kitchen, to the sound of non-stop Christmas music. Soup for lunch and chicken, beef, samosas and chapattis for supper, with our Dutch neighbour and old colleague of Rico’s, Cor, and his wife Nancy joining us. No presents were exchanged or emotionally struggled over, prices compared, generosity weighed, the embarrassment and angst: that doesn’t happen in lean years. No one complains, they just enjoy what there is, a cheerful family being together, sharing what they have. It is refreshing indeed to spend the holiday thus!
DAY 16. THURSDAY DECEMBER 27th, 2018. KITALE, KENYA
This will be my last day in Kitale for now. I won’t stay to see in 2019 because my Ethiopian visa is limited: I have to be out again by February 12th. And Ethiopia is both a long way from Kitale – at least three full days’ riding, maybe four, and a huge country – twice the size of France (or Texas)… So I will leave tomorrow morning. Most of today, then, was spent setting up for my journey, sorting my scant luggage, repairing bits of panniers, checking things and preparing for what I hope will be a fascinating journey – into a new country for me. Now that my safari is about to begin, I am both really looking forward to it, and feeling nervous – the usual state.
Delightful Scovia took me for a ‘nature walk’ as she, so recently finished with secondary school, called it: a walk around the neighbourhood. Not far behind the many, and increasing number of private houses in this residential area, spreading already six kilometres from the town centre, lie shambas and fields, a few small eucalyptus groves and scruffy grazing. The big curved shoulder of Mount Elgon spread-eagles across the western horizon, the border with Uganda running over its peaks. We walked and chattered comfortably, Scovia a self-assured young woman. Then a heavy shower soaked us and we laughed happily, waving to others sheltering under their rusty zinc eaves as we slithered on the instantly muddy surfaces.
DAY 17. FRIDAY DECEMBER 28th, 2018. ELDAMA RAVINE, KENYA
The big journey begins! I’ve only managed 150 miles of it so far – with maybe 1000 more to go, even to get me to Addis Ababa! Wow. When I look at the map, I see how little of Kenya I have seen… The vast empty desert quarter to the north will take me at least three days to ride. I skirted its southern edge last year; I remember the expansive view from the northern slopes of Mount Kenya, stretching far, far beyond the eye could see, somewhere immensely far beyond the horizons. In the foreground fields of vibrantly yellow rapeseed, beyond just pinks and greys until they faded into the immense arc of the African sky. That’s where I am heading – somewhere into my own unknown. It’s exciting. I’m actually happy that it is so far; it seems more exotic somehow. It’s a challenge I relish. (At the moment!)
Despite being just a couple of miles north of the Equator tonight, it can be chilly riding at these altitudes and I am surprisingly tired. Much of the afternoon I rode at above 7000 feet. The air is clear as crystal, cool and fresh. It’s a delight. Most of my journey today was on roads I know well; indeed, I stayed in Eldama Ravine two years ago, in the noisiest hotel of my African experience! The disco downstairs vibrated the entire structure and my ear plugs just seemed to swell the bass beats. The disco continued all night, and I think it was also a Friday – so there was no way I was stopping at the Chambai Springs Hotel in town, but ahead of me I saw dark rain clouds so I cut short my ride here. Off the road, up 300 yards of appalling track, I found a big hotel. As I pulled into the yard, heavy bass beats filled the yards. Maybe all Eldama Ravine rocks on a Friday? “I’m looking for a place to sleep,” I told friendly Sharon behind a rough reception in a corner of the concrete restaurant. “You don’t have a disco tonight..?”
She laughed. “No, the music will be only an hour more! We have a party of students by the pool!”
She showed me a couple of rooms, which, apart from dire mauve and purple decor, were inoffensive and good value at £11.80. I moved in with a smile. My needs are few: a clean bed, a warm shower and a long sleep to relax the bike-shaken bones.
The police usually stop me out of curiosity, no other motive. Lovely Zimbabwe is the only place I am hassled by police. “Where do you go?” asked the young traffic constable. “Oh, I’m on my way to Ethiopia,” I replied, anticipating a reaction. “By plane..?”
“No! On this!” I become a wonder, a story to be told. I ride away the centre of amazed faces, of good natured jokes and the focus of many wide white smiles. They seldom then ask to see my papers. For most of them, it’s a wonder that I have ridden from Kitale, 10 miles away.
It was almost eleven thirty before I left Kitale, reluctantly taking my farewell of my Kenyan extended family. I’ll return in about six weeks, but Rico hopes to be on contract in Zambia by then. I hope he may be back before I leave Kitale in March. I feel so warmly welcomed there now, my third Christmas holiday with them all. We posed for a cheerful photo, eating our pieces of Christmas cake, which has become a small tradition: my friend Pat Mill’s delicious cake, a kind gift she has given me for the past three years.
Then I was on the road eastwards into the rolling hills towards the ugly city of Eldoret, which I miss by a few miles and head back towards Iten, the runners’ town above Kessup on the very lip of the dramatic Rift Valley. I know all these roads well. All but six or seven miles are on good tarmac, sweeping through magnificent highland hills, clothed in tall dark conifers and waving eucalyptus. The verges are wide; there’s plenty of space up here. Standing way back from the road are fences of vertical spilt logs, smallholdings and small fields surrounding tin-roofed dwellings. There are cattle everywhere; children too, many of whom wave. I climb slowly higher and higher, cooler and cooler. I consider stopping to put on another layer, but I know that eventually I will descend and it’ll warm again. I pass one of my favourite hotels, the old faded colonial Kaptagat Hotel in its old gardens, a tattered hotel where I enjoy the aroma and warmth of a cedar fire in my bedroom with its polished boarded floors. Pity I can’t stop tonight: I’d be warmly welcomed, but it’s only 2.30 and I have a thousand miles to ride. I pass the top of that wonderful serpentine down into the valley and the fluorspar mines, but I rode that magic last week. I sweep along; stop at a viewpoint where the enormous valley suddenly comes sight – it’s evasive most of the way. Women and children sell fresh muddy potatoes from small stacks, amused that the mzungu has stopped. They immediately gather round me. It’s just curiosity, something to pass some time, an event on the usual endless day sitting at the roadside staring into space. You must get used to this focus of attention, the nearness of people discussing every feature of you and your possessions. But everyone smiles happily and waves me on my way.
Then Eldama Ravine, not a pretty town. It sprawls across a hillside, new concrete mixed with faded concrete, rusted zinc and garish shiny paintwork advertising all the phone companies. The African norm is not maintenance but eventual replacement, so new structures fade and crack, peel and stain, break and crumble back into the scruffiness of age. Someday, they’ll be pulled down and left gestating as heaps of rubble for a decade or two. Then a newly hopeful project will arise – and slowly succumb to the same fate. It’s the African cycle.
Solomon, shaking my hand, tells me he’s the owner of this hillside hotel. He made his money working for Anglo-American Mines, he says, in various parts of the world. He is one of twenty children; his father had three wives. Father was uneducated but made money, initially, as always in Africa, cattle, then buying trucks, then local politics – astute moves. “He managed to educate us all. Fifteen of us to university. I went to study in Romania. I speak Romanian, and French. I worked in Congo for ten years. But this is my home. My father, he gave each son twenty acres. But so many children was a lot of stress. He had diabetes, his legs amputated. He died in 2003, aged 73. We have a reunion once a year. There are about 100 grandchildren! If we meet here, we can fill the hotel.” Exponential is a word you come to respect in African demographics.
And then it’s 8.30 and I realise that I am exhausted, full of not bad chicken curry, served with sour local vegetables and a couple of greasy African chapattis. A bottle of Tusker and that’s it for another day. Now all I ask is a comfortable bed and quiet… Another day on the road.
DAY 18. SATURDAY DECEMBER 29th, 2018. NANYUKI, KENYA
Another 170 miles nearer Ethiopia, but still a long way to go! Tonight finds me in Nanyuki, on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, a town known for its British army training centre, which gives it, I think, a price of its own – higher than usual. The Kenyan government makes good money from the British government for this intrusion. But despite the abnormal costs of Nanyuki, not a pretty town, I just did the best hotel deal of my African travels!
Quite shameless after all this time, I usually manage to get a good rate by a bit of bargaining and play-acting my disappointment when tariffs are too high. I don’t think I EVER managed a 74% discount before though, down from £59 a night (at which this place would still be over-priced by about double, I reckon) to my budget limit of £15.75! Haha! Done it again. Well, the middle-aged mzungu owner happens to be a biker so the old fraternity, that crosses all barriers of race, creed, age and culture, works once more. “Don’t tell your friends what you’re paying!” My dinner will cost me double, but that’s a small matter. For this discount I can’t really argue and go and eat at a street stall! “I’d rather have the room used for two thousand shillings than empty for nothing, at this time of evening anyway!” This after he’d recommended a place down the track that’d rent me a room within my budget. This place seems to cater to the international trade, booked ahead from the internet, those tunnel-vision organised animal safari guests, racial blinkers firmly in place, who feel more secure with a white man in charge; and showy middle class Kenyans impressing their circles by paying three times the real rate. Oh well, I’ll take the hospitality for a quarter the tariff! To judge by the fifty-some year old overweight mzungu who just entered the dining room with a pretty twenty-some floosie, in high boots and short skirt I can guess at the extra ‘trade’; ‘leering’ is a word that comes to mind, watching as he moves alongside from the opposite side of their table. Oh well, a 74% discount’s fine, even if I am generally more comfortable in more ‘local’ places.
The owner was born in Kenya when his British father was sent to oversee some details of independence in the early 60s. He’s a rolling stone, it seems, settled for now in Nanyuki, after years in Australia and Switzerland. He intends to lease his place to Americans next year, import another bike, do some riding round and look for the next resting place. It’s interesting to find that the mzungu ownership does mean the taps don’t swivel, the cistern works and the curtain poles don’t crash to the floor.
Now, after supper, I’m relaxing before a log fire, happy for its warmth tonight. Face burning from the sun and later the chill air, I can reflect slightly soporifically on my day…
It’s been a long day, a feature of which was crossing the proliferations of Equator at least six or seven times. There are a lot of Equators in Kenya. I know it’s only an imaginary line, but I still feel a frisson of excitement when I see the signs, although I suspect some are just where there’s a good place for souvenir stands. I left Eldama Ravine, and headed down to the sun-filled Rift Valley again, heat increasing pleasantly as I rode. Solomon, last night’s hotel owner, told me of a short cut by which I could cut out two sides of a traffic triangle I really dislike, that takes me through the congested, crazy city of Nakuru, on the main, horrid highway across Kenya. “Don’t cross the rail tracks, turn left beside them.”
It was a rather insignificant rough gravel and rocky road across the valley, about 20 miles. As I rode, I thought smugly of the chaos of Nakuru, where anarchic traffic is amongst the craziest in the country. My road was convoluted, generally following an old, long-defunct railway track between cactus, thorn trees and scrub, past invisible landmarks redolent of old colonial engineers: ‘McCall’s Siding’, ‘Milton’s Siding’, buried now in red earth. In the valley below were huge areas under dirty sand-faded plastic. It’s from these regions that out of season flowers come, flown (ridiculously) in jumbo jets to the flower markets of Europe every day. I bounced through isolated villages, across an unmarked Equator or two, pursued by a thousand eyes and smiling faces, past hundreds of shambas, through road blocks of flocking sheep, dodging cattle everywhere. At last I emerged onto a tar road, took a wrong turning and wasted ten kilometres until I stopped to ask my way from Joseph, a friendly boda-boda rider. Then it was the long, long climb up to the top of Kenya, as far as roads go at least, to Nyaharuru, the highest town. And it IS a long ride with only 200ccs to power me to the heights. But it’s a magnificent journey, up and up into the green heights, getting colder every twist in the road. Crossing yet another putative Equator, at 2350 metres high, I stopped to look back across the intervening valleys, zinc roofs glinting in the high, bright sun, then, finally, rode on into Nyaharuru, an untidy hill town full of traffic.
The old Thomson’s Falls Hotel is stuck in the same time warp as the Kitale Club, spinning around in about 1960, with fake painted half-timbering, wide red zinc eaves, it’s waiters dressed in crumpled, ill-fitting second-hand black suits, unsuitable for the culture, let alone the climate. I stopped for a quaintly amusing hour to drink masala tea (tea with ginger and spices) from one of those ill-designed utility teapots that never pour without leaving a puddle on the table. Nearby, the falls roar over a rocky edge, tumbling into a gorge, watched by a couple of hundred local tourists, this weekend day. Souvenir stands abound outside but one of the best ways to see the falls is to buy a pot of tea in the old colonial gardens of the hotel!
From there it is a tedious ride on a busy highway, idiots returning to the capital from their Christmas breaks, driving erratically over the long hills and sweeps of the wide road, the lovely scenery ignored in haste to be in front. Away to the south is the range of the Aberdares, tightly clothed in dark forests, the parks and reserves where big game roams in protected safety. To the north, now beneath heavy rain clouds, stretches a vast tract of lowland. Rain was closing in; I stopped to put on my waterproof coat against the cold. When the sun stops shining, the smile goes out of the African landscape.
Soon I had to stop to don my waterproof trousers for a heavy, cold shower. I pulled off the road to shelter with boda-boda riders beneath one of their stick and tin shelters, most emblazoned with the generosity of the local politician who, vote-hungry, provided a little sun and rain cover for his struggling constituents as he appropriated their limited rights into his own bank account.
These boda-boda men, a couple of them in their middle age, but most in their twenties, probably think themselves lucky to make a pound or two a day: there are so many of them. Yet they have an apparently unlimited capacity for welcome and friendliness, especially with a fellow biker and a mzungu who treats them as equals. I enjoyed twenty minutes waiting out the worst of the shower with them, curious about my journey. Their bikes are worn out, covered in stickers, battered, dented and most likely unsafe, but they provide a living of sorts in a country where, through vast over-population, unaffordable education, misappropriation of funds, exploitation by the outside world and bad government, most struggle along on a few Kenyan bob a day, made however they can. Many of these young men – and the matatu drivers – don’t own their vehicles. They are ‘rented’ from richer Kenyans, many of them policemen and politicians… Life is hard for the average Kenyan. Yet they still have that fine capacity for open, generous friendliness to a passing mzungu, a being from another world entirely. THAT is the wonder of Africa!
DAY 19. SUNDAY DECEMBER 30th, 2018. ARCHERS POST, KENYA
Going back to places in Africa is so rewarding. I met and stayed with Rebecca almost eighteen years ago. She was a relative of Rico’s first Kenyan wife, Anna. She’s an impressive woman, forging her own path in the man’s world that is Africa. I have so often written here that if the women of Africa could be empowered, this wouldn’t be the basket case continent that is its trend. Rebecca is a case in point. About 25 years ago she and a few like-minded women formed a women’s cooperative, against a lot of male opposition. She’s just as impressive and powerful all these years later. The cooperative now runs a school with 200 pupils, that was graded sixth out of 31 local schools, maintains an ethnic ‘village’ open to tourists, and now a fine bar with a few bandas (grass-roofed huts for rent) beside the river. They have stood out against female genital mutilation and rigorously supported the rights of their girls and women. In 2001 the project was in its early days, now it is well established and Rebecca tells me she is even to make a speech at this year’s International Women’s Day in Italy shortly. I’ve just drunk three bottles of beer with her and Sophia, the vice chair of the Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission. “The only person we can’t arrest is the President!” (He being perhaps the first they should arrest…). “I’m second in command.” Sophia is a local product too, her intelligence encouraged, she tells me, by the catholic church. For a woman from a northern tribe to become a high ranking, respected member of the administration is a reflection of her determination. Impressive women…
Today was an easy day, just 100 miles or so. I left Nanyuki late, chatting to William, my host of last night. It turned out that we had a lot in common, apart from the biking. He built scenery in Australia, understood my bizarre profession and loves to travel. Not surprisingly, we had a lot to talk about before I finally got away at 11.30.
The road north is busy this weekend; it’s still a major holiday with traffic returning Nairobi or heading for a few last days at some of the attractions in the northern region, game parks and reserves. My companions at breakfast, a Nairobi couple with a small daughter, chatted over our fruit and scrambled eggs. He works for one of the national media companies, print and TV. He told me that it takes him up to two hours to get to work. He rises at 5.00am and gets home at 8.00pm. “Nothing to do but work eight hours a travel another three or four!” That’s life for many professionals across the continent. Their holiday was an obvious relief.
At last I got on my way, on a good road that skirts around the lower slopes of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second mountain. Away to my right, the peaks of the mountain appeared from the bright white clouds, snow and tenacious (reducing) glaciers visible on the highest, jagged points. The light up here is so extreme that it seems to wash out the natural colours of the soil and vegetation to faded pale colours. It’s a lovely landscape, spoiled rather by square kilometres of dirty plastic hot houses, producing vegetables and flowers for our greedy European markets.
Almost a year ago I stopped for coffee at a cafe and restaurant in this northern country. They had a real coffee machine, a rarity in Kenya. When I stopped today, a young woman appeared to greet me. “You stopped here before!” said Lucy, correctly. Amazing, at least eleven months on, and she remembered me. A bright, friendly young woman, with her sister, Isabella and their friend Kananu, they were delightful company and conversation for a relaxed hour over good coffee and cake. Fancy remembering me! But then, I suppose white-bearded mzungus on motorbikes don’t call every day.
My first view of the great expanses of the north came soon after. Suddenly, the hills dropped away to reveal a hundred miles of pale green landscapes and distant blue mountains. There’s been a great deal of rain this year; William said they’d had an exceptional four and a half metres of rain in the last three months in Nanyuki. Even today there were light rain showers as I descended to the dry bush lands, heavy rain streaking the skies to the west.
I am now entering the Africa that you know from picture books. The hills fall back to make occasional tall punctuations to level lands. Flat-topped thorn trees abound and the soil is rocky, volcanic stones like sponges lying on the dry earth amongst spiky undergrowth. Women sport layer upon layer of rings of beadwork around their necks, each intricate layer indicating their status. Herdsmen, with large flocks of goats, wear colourful cloths like sarongs and distinctive hairstyles. These are desert people, cattle herders living in simple homes of thatch and stick. The sun beats down uncompromisingly, a harsh, steely light.
Archers Post is a low lying, sandy town of small lock up shops and rude housing. I remembered roughly where to look for Rebecca. In 2001, Rico, his sister and her husband, and his cousin and wife, and I all stayed in her small concrete block compound, in which she’d build, “With my OWN hands!” a few guest rooms, hot, basic spaces. It’s still a rough guest house, now owned by her divorced husband, Fabien, and his soon-wed young wife. Samburu men, or any other tribe of the 3000 odd in Africa, have little time and much jealousy for strong, independent women. “Oh, he tried to spread the stories! How I was going with wazungu! How I took men. But I don’t need them! I have my work. I represent my women. I love my work! Have you seen me with men? I asked; have you? My sons, they came back slowly. There, that is my son there…” A burly fellow, now in his thirties, whom I once met, aged about fifteen. “Oh, I love my work! It is enough!”
She now manages the campsite, a fine bar overlooking the fast flowing brown river, and the cultural village amongst thorn hedges. It’s a well kept, tidy operation, secure and popular with wazungu guests visiting the large national game parks. “You will stay here tonight! I am happy you came back!” Rebecca likes her beer, downing bottles of White Cap lager through the hot afternoon beside the river, holding court, this matriarch of the community.
“Tell me about Rico. Is he happy? I love Rico! In Kitale? That’s good, Turkana is a tough place.” Rico lived some years in Turkana, way up in the tribal wilds of the far north. It IS a rough place… Rico’s first Kenyan wife, a Turkana woman, Anna, was a cousin to Rebecca; their fathers were brothers from here, but Anna’s father fled to Turkana as a young man. There he took various wives and produced a large family, shunning his home people. It was Anna who found her lost family again, a few years before she died. Rico and Rebecca got to know one another then. But after Anna died the relations soured somewhat, through misunderstandings.
Earlier, I rode into the thorn-hedged compound of the spread-eagled guest house on the sand and parked the Mosquito in the searing sun. “I’m looking for Rebecca,” I said to the large lady in a full length pink Sunday dress, half-recognising her. “I am Rico’s friend. I stayed with you almost eighteen years ago, and we agreed, ‘if I am passing through Samburu, I must look for you’!” Within moments, after a huge enveloping hug, I was seated with three bottles of beer and Sophia!
“How is Rico? Oh, I love Rico!” It seemed the misunderstandings were a regret for Rebecca. “How Rico has looked after that family!” and she explained the circumstances of Anna’s dysfunctional Turkana family, with its jealousies and rejections, how Rico took in and brought up so many children. “I LOVE Rico!”
“I want Rico to visit me again. I am happy he has a good wife now. I love Rico!” This cheerful, capable, large woman, now in her late 50s, exclaimed again and again slipping in and out of her local language and English as she told Sophia the stories. The river flowed quietly past, the pale green of the desert stretched to the southern horizon, flat. Music blared, as if from six feet away, but actually 300 yards away, from a phenomenally loud bar where disco lights flashed across the thorn scrub. “It will go on ALL night! I hope it won’t disturb you. They are bad neighbours! What can we do?”
“It WILL disturb me! I am the lightest sleeper. Just as well I have ear plugs. Maybe you should mobilise your women! There you have power!” I know what the threat of withdrawal of conjugal rights can do in this culture – but it has, of course, to be done in unison to avoid punishment. It’s not a light path for women to take in Africa!
We drank and conversed. The river flowed on by. “Where does it go?” I asked. “It’s a lot of water.”
“To Somalia,” a man told me. “It goes underground and to the Indian Ocean,” said another. Maybe it’s one of those African rivers that dies in the desert?
The conversation ranged on. Now I was on my third bottle, still in my boots and riding trousers, uncomfortable, head beginning to throb. Sophia, downed her Belozi lagers, a strong-featured woman in a long black dress, her head wound in an orange and red cloth, falling away and swung casually around her neck.
The talk turned to a topic that is important to these women, FGM. They have stood bravely against the customs and rituals of their community and prevented the barbarism on their own daughters. But it was too late for them. “Ha! We went on TV!” exclaimed Sophia with big laugh, this obviously commanding woman, who has risen so far and garnered respect on the way. Doubtless, she is a well known national figure. “Oh! I surprised them! The viewers were glued to the TV. I told them what they did to me. I TOLD them! EXACTLY!” She made discomforting slicing gestures in her lap as she laughed. “Not for MY daughter… our daughters!” These are brave women. “Our daughters won’t be abused like that.”
My fourth bottle of beer was taken under the bright stars. It was a long time since breakfast now; my head ached from sun, the pounding of the disco across the thorn bushes, concentration on the road and too much alcohol. But the stars provided a wonderful still relief as I tried to relieve my aching neck, gazing into their brilliant depths, more stars than ever visible in Europe. Various people joined our dark table, including an English woman, Wendy, who discovered her love of Africa through VSO. In due course supper was ready, chicken, rice, vegetables and chapattis. “When I was here, they arranged a trip for local people to some of the safari lodges,” said Wendy. “About six or seven matatus lined up, full of elders and local people. I was asked to film their reactions…” Bear in mind that local people never get near these exclusive, expensive places unless as servants. “It was FUNNY! They couldn’t believe it. When they saw the rooms… the bathrooms, they lifted the seats up and down, disbelieving. When we told them the cost, they were so funny! The elders just shook their heads. Wazungu come direct to these places, see the animals, live in seclusion, and think they’ve seen Africa!”
And now, at last, I can repair to bed in my round mud and thatch hut, shaking to the beat of the distant disco. One benefit of motorcycling is ear plugs! It’s warm, just a sheet for cover tonight under my mosquito net. It feels more like the tropics this way. Tomorrow is all new country for me. I am still 300 miles, two days, even to the border…
DAY 20. MONDAY DECEMBER 31st, 2018. MARSABIT, KENYA
There are times when you can feel very alone in Africa. Today’s long ride was one of them. Like the Karoo Desert far down in South Africa, the northern deserts of Kenya just seem to stretch endlessly; I am on my own in this infinity, insignificant, sharing the horizons with a few haughty camels, noses disdainfully in the air as I pass, or a flock of ostriches, nature’s joke on the avian world. I ride and ride. Nothing moves but the fluffy white clouds drifting aimlessly about in the deep blue sky. There’s no shade. The sun beats on my helmet. My road goes on and on, no relief. Ancient volcanic plugs rise from the endless level horizons. Red earth. Flat-topped trees. Heat shimmering.
There’s a sense of the exotic about it up here, way beyond the other Kenya now; the Kenya of ‘civilisation’, traffic, cheerful people, boda-boda boys, newspaper sellers, coffee and tea places, people waiting for matatus. Up here, even the matatus are few and far between, boda-bodas almost non-existent: the distances too far. It’s another country. Raw. Harsh. Uncompromising.
It’s the Africa of the picture books; tribespeople from National Geographic. Young women swathed in bright cloths, mainly red, orange and blue; beaded necklace rings, shoulder wide, young teenage, babies at backs. They wave, a flash of bright beaded wristbands and a light brown palm against the dark black of their skins. Young men, tribesmen, decorated, glittering like Christmas trees, tall, thin, athletic. A red cloth wrapped around the waist, torso bare, black skin, beads everywhere. Bizarre headdresses, beads, feathers, pointed bones through their upper ears. Self-aware, parading, exotic.
My lips are parched; I stop to drink some water, my metal bottle filled from the bore hole water at last night’s guest house. “It’s salty!” Rebecca warned me. The bore hole was donated by women in Europe, admiring the work of her cooperative. In Africa water is life. I alleviate the odd flavour with a gulp of juice from my other container and ride on. Still a long way to ride on my little Mosquito at 45mph.
‘Caution. Animals crossing 200 metres’. Warns a rusted sign with a picture of elephants. But it’s more likely I’ll see cows to dodge on the road, or one of the enormous flocks of sheep common here with these tribes. Or donkeys that never get out of the way. Further on, it will be camels clomping across the tarmac.
Now it’s noon. I’m riding on my own shadow, daydreaming my way towards Ethiopia – slowly. The clouds are thickening, still high and white, but an occasional drift of welcome shadow across the road. A scrappy town on the horizon, a red and white communication tower, a completely dry red river bed beneath a bridge 100 metres wide. This road is new; the bridges in good condition yet. Merille; it’s not even on my map. Tea! I’ll stop for tea. I want to stave off the headache I’ve had the last four afternoons: dehydration, the hot helmet, my tensed neck.
There’s a ‘hotel’, ‘Travellers Choice’, no apostrophe. Well, it wouldn’t be my choice anywhere else. ‘Hotel’ here means tea house, greasy food, heavy ughali, some broken bones with scraps of flesh. Plastic chairs from China. I pull up in the red sandy street. People look at me. No smiles but no danger either. I’m just sort of totally off their map. They don’t see wazungus here. They rush past in a pother of dust in over-equipped safari vehicles, windows up, remote. Slightly detached people these, some Sudanese here, it’s not far away now, that troubled land. I sip the sweet, milky tea, revolting but restorative. The tea tastes of smoke, but it’s really smoke, not lapsang, water boiled on a wood fire, tea served from an old pink Chinese vacuum flask. “What’s your team?” asks a young man sporting large thick black glasses without lenses. It’s the one thing almost every African, anywhere on the continent, knows about England: football.
People pass the doorway like a film. Extraordinary earrings on the men, sock-like anklets of beads for the girls. I’m left in peace. I really do feel as if I’m off their radar here. Too exotic for them too, we have little point of contact. “Mzungu!” a child calls out, and I realise I am almost dozing off in the warmth. Beads and spears everywhere, bright cloth, shy smiles, Chinese flip-flops or car-tyre sandals. Bare chests, peacock preening, big belt knives and pangas in beaded sheaths, earrings, headdresses, beads, beads, beads. It does feel like Africa, though.
On again. Still a long ride ahead. A herdsman, red cloth round his waist, bare very black chest, beaded and feathered headdress, balances on one foot watching a multitude of sheep at the roadside. He keeps his balance by leaning on a fine seven foot long, hand wrought spear. He has a mobile phone to his ear.
“You are brave,” people incorrectly tell me at home, imagining, I suppose, the fighting tribesmen, the snakes I never see, international wars beloved of the western media, the famines, ambush, robbery, marauding animals all behind fences now; who knows, maybe they imagine the natives dancing round the cooking pot! My only bravery is in bringing a mechanical jigsaw that I hardly begin to understand, to a lonely place so far from mechanics who do understand. I listen for the rattle, the misfire, the silence; worst, wait for the wobble that signifies a flat tyre – all of them presaging disaster to my lonely imagination. It’s the main stress of my days.
A few decades ago, this was one of the most dangerous roads in all Africa. Shiftas, Somali warriors, shot on sight. Life is cheap in the harsh depths of the desert. Or it was marauding tribes hacking each other to death, with a few ‘collateral damage’ victims on the way. They’d not have wanted my camera or iPad, valuables to me, but probably my shoes, valuables to them. A life for a pair of shoes. It was a brutal reality. Now the road is tedious, smooth tarmac all the way these last few years, part of that long ambition of a Trans Africa Highway, a road from Cape Town to Cairo, that’s never been achieved, and that volatile African politics will probably never permit.
I may not need courage, but I do need determination. At last Marsabit is in sight. It’s on a small volcanic mountain range above the desert and has it’s own microclimate, much cooler. I’d expected multiple choices of somewhere decent to stay, but 10 or 12 kilometres touring the place didn’t turn up much. Finally I found the Nomads Trail Hotel and did a deal with Kaseem for a first floor room with only a 25% discount tonight. But it’s a good room and a hot shower. The town’s pretty grim, heavily Moslem and most of it ‘dry’. And here I am on New Year’s Eve having to tour the whole town to find the hidden bar, tucked away on the fourth floor of one of the fading hotels, to even get a bottle of Tusker! I am entirely alone here, looking down over the rusted tin roofs and lights of the ugly town. My hotel – dry – is across the main highway. The bar girl, bored and listless, wanted to draw the curtains. “No, leave them! I enjoy looking out!” I said.
“But people will see you!” I’m on the fourth floor of a hideous hotel with mirrored glass windows! But that’s the trouble with religious dogma – I feel guilty and a bit subversive to be drinking two not very good Tuskers on New Year’s Eve! Huh. Oh well, I shall be in bed LONG before 2018 is done… At least in an Islamic hotel there’ll be revelry to keep me awake.
About to begin the ride. We eat Pat’s Christmas cake.