I’ve been without internet again, for over a week. So here’s another rather long episode as I’ve now found an increasingly rare internet cafe in Kitale, where I returned ‘home’ to warm welcomes yesterday afternoon. Even now, I can’t upload any more pictures than this, as the connection has dropped three times while trying to do this, so, here goes, another 11 days…
DAY 59. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 8th 2019. MARSABIT, KENYA
What is there to write about a day spent entirely watching Sam, the mechanic and his brother Steve, work on my Mosquito in their earthy yard?
Well, I can tell you what a charming couple they are; how they seem to be excellent and inventive mechanics; how I have listened to moral stories based on the bible and god all day; how they have little respect for their Moslem neighbours in this town; how kind they are – and then, of course, I can describe their workshop…
It’s a dusty, earthy plot on the way out of town. A lot of derelict motorbikes lean about in various stages of dissolution, some of which then turn out to belong to customers, who ride them away. There are heaps of rubbish, mainly bits of wrecked piki-pikis, that turn out to contain magic. “Don’t worry,” Sam kept assuring me, as he took more and more of my engine to bits. “You will enjoy your journey. God will provide…” I’m not sure it was god, but the magic suitcase, a description that made Sam laugh, provided. In one of the large heaps of junk and rubbish, sat an old zipped suitcase, from which, astonishingly, Sam produced two valve seals to replace the loose, leaky (undoubtedly Chinese) ones that were causing much of my oil loss. Valve seals that fitted! “Oh, we have a truck in town with 200 engines! If we’d known you were coming back (my text never arrived) I have a whole Suzuki DR 200. We could have used original parts!” As it is, he has been forced to improvise and adjust new piston rings from Indian ones bought in town. But I have faith that he knows what he’s about, even as he files down such crucial parts as piston rings. The ones that Nashon used in early December were obviously very second rate, Chinese rings. Even I can see that they are half the thickness and already worn and ridged.
As immigrants, “WE are Christians, they are all Moslem…” dismissively, they are fairly deeply prejudiced against the townsfolk. It appears that to get on in this town you need to be either Moslem or very faithful that the Christian god will provide. Happily, Sam and Steve have the latter confidence, a deeply held belief that shapes all their lives and keeps them optimistic and positive. It’s such a firm belief that I have to respect it. The morality tales wore on a bit as I sat there on a low stool from 11 until 6, but one thing I have discovered on my travels is that when someone helps you, you must go at their speed. Sam broke off all other engagements to work the whole day on my Mosquito. I’ve a fear that may extend into much of tomorrow, as he still has to reassemble it from its component parts, all stored in a rusty old iron bowl and a blue plastic mudguard on the dust. But, despite my faint impatience, the Mosquito will probably carry me onward without trouble. I doubt I’d have had much more trouble free riding if I hadn’t had the good fortune to meet Sam six weeks ago. He’s even made gaskets from the correct material, “It’s British!”, holding it up for my inspection, instead of the copious quantities of gasket cement that he is peeling off from various earlier works.
The two young men who run the hotel in which I am staying; really a very pleasant one (although I have to step into the shower, shimmy round the door, which doesn’t open because the washbasin is a mere centimetre too far to the left, to get to the lavatory, because the builder didn’t calculate the door swing), are friendly and welcoming. It’s intriguing, though, how little I sometimes understand of the life around me. Sam tells me, and he’s been observing this town from his very Christian viewpoint for many years, that these two – and many others of course – are immigrants from Ethiopia, originally Orthodox Christian, but converted to Islam to be able to get work in this region… Sam and Steve also have little time or respect for the Chinese, a pretty common prejudice, who come in entirely self interest to Africa, eat all the dogs and export donkeys by the lorry load for consumption in China. They tell stories too of clandestine Chinese expeditions into areas not remotely related to their usual road building; the extraction of soils and rocks that will be secretly analysed back in China in the constant search for minerals, the Chinese obsession with Africa. They are here for themselves, looking to build up vast debts amongst African governments for which repayment will one day be demanded in mineral rights. China does nothing in anyone else’s interest. I have travelled far and wide on this continent, seeing frequent signs: ‘furnished by the peoples of the United States of America’, ‘provided by the European Union’, ‘United Kingdom Aid’ and so forth. I will probably fall off the Mosquito in shock, should I ever see a Chinese charitable project, but I think I am in no immediate danger of being so unseated.
Not a single person, young or old, asked me for money today. Many greeted me, shook my hand as I walked by and wished me well. Sam and Steve tell me that Ethiopians even beg from THEM when they cross the border, recognising (as I don’t) the racial difference. To some extent, I can see why a white man might be seen as a cash cow, but a Kenyan? Times are hard for them too, especially those who live in these distant desert extremes…
I planned a day of rest on this journey south through the big desert. I’ve had one. I may end up with two! I need to get moving by Sunday though, or I might be kindly invited to spend it praising god with the charming but very devout Sam and Steve! That may be assimilation too far for me.
DAY 60. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 9th 2019. MARSABIT, KENYA
It was well after dark by the time I left Sam’s ‘workshop’ at 7.00 this evening. I’d been there since ten this morning. He’s a very charming man – but he talks a great deal, and he’s one of those people who cannot talk and work at the same time! He uses his hands to explain his stories. A few times I had difficulty keeping my patience, especially when, in response to my retort that Christians often fought each other too, not just the evil Moslems, he told me that HE could resolve Ireland’s 100 year old animosity because God would be with him. “Yeah, but whose god?” I bit my tongue from asking, “the protestant’ or the catholics’?”
And I did listen to a LOT about god and the bible, and an equal amount of anti-moslem rhetoric. It’s an unappealing thing about many devout Christians, that THEIR version of god is the only one to be considered. I accept that I have certain prejudices against Islam but I acknowledge, that to Moslems, their faith is as important and valid as any other. My prejudice is against a religion that is so repressive, appallingly sexist, and somewhat drowning in misery – and tries to make me feel guilty for having to seek out, at some difficulty, the only beer bar in town, a place of thick curtains, hidden on the fourth and top floor of one of the hotels. In my own hotel, I can get tea… However, I DO accept that all faiths have equal validity for those who believe, even if I speak from a viewpoint of no belief in any of them. But for God-will-provide-Sam, there’s only one true religion. I’ve met this extreme Christian focus amongst Afrikaners, and of course in America too, a real hotbed of ‘my god’s the only real one; theirs is an impostor’.
However, he’s so kind to have rearranged his Sunday duties – teaching his rather literal interpretation of bible stories and Christian morality to children – to make the necessary adjustments to my Mosquito, which he has completely rebuilt over the last two days. I’ve watched every move, and he’s a competent mechanic. He has removed huge amounts of silicone sealant, the African answer to engine repair. He has made proper paper gaskets and peeled yards of silicone from every surface, and quite a bit out of the oil filter too! Pity he’s in remote Marsabit, as he’s a good mechanic – so long as you can tolerate the endless Christian evangelism.
Well, I was determined to pace myself on this journey back across the deserts to central Kenya. I didn’t quite mean to take so long, and Marsabit is a dull place, but there’s no rush: I have time to spare with still a month to travel. And I will know I can rely on my wheels. Without Sam’s ministration (unfortunate choice of word!) I’d probably have had no more than another 300 or 400 kilometres before a serious engine breakdown. The piston rings and valve seals were failing.
I’m just a bit nervous about setting off without properly testing the machine within reach of help. When Sam rode it this evening there were top end adjustments still to be made to get it starting and running smoothly. My next ride is over 200 kilometres, with very little habitation on the way. I’d hoped to be on my way tomorrow but perhaps I should ride around Marsabit and its desert first. It may mean a fourth night here. At least I sleep well in this hotel. I’ll assess the wisdom of making that journey when I meet Sam in the morning but a glimpse at the map shows just how empty are the next 150 miles. Not a region to in which break down!
DAY 61. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 10th 2019. MARSABIT, KENYA
My little Mosquito seems to have gained about 50ccs since Thursday. New piston rings and new valve seals have increased the compression and made it go about ten kilometres an hour faster. It was mid-afternoon before we completed the work. Sam’s a very good mechanic I think, and doesn’t do jobs by halves. “I think we’ll just drop down the rear wheel and see to the brakes. When you go, I want you to enjoy the journey and god to go with you…” So off came the back wheel, and many creative changes made to bits that have been bodged badly by various African mechanics. Now bodged much more efficiently and inventively by impressive Sam. I have watched every stage of the lengthy process – accompanied today by several hours of bible reading on a small phone. Thankfully, it was in Swahili, so just noise to me, and as the battery died, it got quieter and quieter. Like I said, when people help you, you have to go at their speed and adapt to their ways. I’ve made myself very popular and respected by the two brothers as their ‘father’ and by being ‘so patient and respectful’ to them. I pointed out that the bible says, ‘do unto others how you wish others to do unto you’ (or whatever is the correct old saw).
Marsabit is a bit of an end of the world place, a really very uninteresting outpost in the Kenyan desert. But I must say, it’s friendly. I’m now recognised around town and various young men have asked me if my bike was ready yet as I walked through town. Not many wazungu spend four days in this backwater. Almost everyone greets me in a warm manner as I walk, shaking hands if near enough, and waving greetings from their motorbikes. They’re all strangers, but Kenya is a remarkably amiable and convivial country. No one, young, old, destitute, dressed in rags or suits, has asked me for money. It’s just so uncommon in the old British colonies. “Ah, the British taught us to stand on our own feet!” explains Sam. “They made us to know that money must be earned, not given out. They brought us development.”
I’ll be glad to get away from the Islamic influence that forces me to hide away in the bar of the Silvia Hotel with its over-priced food, in order to drink a simple Tusker beer. My hotel is very congenial and the room comfortable, but it too is Moslem. I sleep well and am very laid back these days. There’s not much stress, beyond Sam’s god-talk, which eventually I just let flow past me, with an apparently appreciative grunt now and again. Sam’s such a knowledgable mechanic that I just take it on board as much as I can, without reaction. Oddly, he’s never once asked me about my belief. I suppose he just assumes that a white man MUST be Christian, as that’s where his religion came from, or at least the vehicle that brought it, with all those missionaries and ‘pastors’. I think he follows the latter, but I avoided any too intense enquiry, often diverting the conversation with a well aimed question about my engine instead!
Sam’s supplied me with absolutely delicious, succulent mangoes, these past days, as I sat on an upturned paint can and watched him work. This is peak fruit season. Forget the stringy things we may get in England, just think soft flesh, ultimate sweetness and total freshness. This afternoon, he very charmingly boiled two small eggs from the hens he keeps in his ‘garage’ (ie. dusty, junk-filled plot). I told him I’ll eat then in the desert tomorrow.
No way could I work in the fashion of so many practical Africans. Why not put down a simple floor and erect a sun shelter of old fabric, rather than work in squalor on the dirt and dust in the hot sun – “Oh, don’t worry, I have a big magnet…” as I worried about the tiny steel valve collets disappearing into the sand, oil and petrol slush? Occasionally, Sam would delve into one of the vast heaps of junk and old, rotting bike parts, and come up with some treasure, like new, efficient valve seals. But why store all this stuff in a derelict Land Rover covered by old canvas and zinc sheets flapping in the wind, or in fading suitcases in piles of scrap metal? I know money’s tight, but surely a rickety shed, a sheet of sun shade, a piece of old metal sheet on which to work, a small stand to put the bike on, so you’re not always curled up (with bad knees from motorbike accidents for both brothers) on paint cans and eight inch high stools? But I know I can’t apply my logic – from another culture and another economy – and must just accept that this is the way people do things here…
DAY 62. MONDAY FEBRUARY 11th 2019. ARCHERS POST, KENYA
Goodness, today took a lot of bloody minded determination! I’m glad it’s behind me, and I begin to understand my loss of confidence on the way up to Ethiopia. When I rode these incredibly long roads before, I had no idea what was in front. Now I have that information, I know what to expect and still it daunts me. How I managed those ridiculously long days, I have no idea. Today I rode from 11 until 4, five hours, with a 45 minute break in the middle. The sun beats down on my helmet and shoulders, my face becomes dry and parched, the air is harsh and hard in my lungs, I am increasingly dirty and just a little deranged by the length of my ride. The bush lands change very slowly; there’s not much to engage attention: large herds of camels watching me imperiously and scornfully; some ostriches that make me laugh as they lope away, feathers waving in disgust, their dignity so affronted by my motorbike. They are such funny birds, so out of kilter with the norms of nature, cartoon birds. Somewhere on my road I passed a dead animal, killed in a collision with a vehicle. I’ve never seen an aardvark before. What a strange animal, sadly deceased.
It’s so empty and lonely out there as I bat along. But actually, I am almost never really alone. In the middle of apparently nowhere at all, people walk the roadside, follow padding camels, sit on a bridge abutment, sit under a tree, walk the distant red soil through the bush. Where are they going? Where have they come from? Why are they there? I guess I’ll never know, but I do know that in Africa, whenever I think I am alone and far from anyone, someone will appear at the roadside, wave from a distant hill, be hanging washing on bushes beside a crude dwelling in the middle of nowhere, watching a few sheep, staring apparently mentally asleep into the shimmering distance.
Every ten minutes or so, a vehicle appears in the far distance, enlarging from the road mirage a mile away and passing in a flash of dust and wind. There’s little traffic up here – nowhere much to go and not much reason to go there. Sometimes the driver will wave; as often just pass in that fleeting moment, neither of us knowing why the hell the other is there, in this godforsaken wilderness. I don’t think I’d be here by choice: I have to travel this road, it’s the only one to Ethiopia that is viable. The others are even more madcap: hundreds of miles of soft sand and rock, emptiness extreme. Until a couple of years ago, this too was a gravel road, across what feels like half Africa, but is really only a mere 400-odd miles of inhospitable bush and desert. It’s just the heat, the desiccated wind and the relentless sun that make it so hostile. Now at least it’s a fine smooth sweeping road.
Half way, at Merille, a town that seems to have no reason to be, except perhaps there just needs to be some basic civilisation to break up the huge distance, I stop for sweet, milky chai, tasting of woodsmoke. I’m back at the Travellers Choice Hoteli, where I stopped six weeks ago. “So you are back!” exclaims the young server. “How was your safari?” Children peek in the door and wave from the street. This is a tribal place, mainly cattle herders, largely Samburu tribespeople, one of Kenya’s more colourful tribes, the sort many people imagine when they hear the word ‘Africa’, National Geographic people, all colour, beads and ethnic tradition. Sitting on the porch around my piki-piki are women with many large round shoulder-resting circles of multicoloured beads, their heads shaved, with beaded and buttoned caps. They have lots of shiny wrist and upper arm bangles and dress in wrapped cloths. Some of the young men are magnificent: beads, beads, beads, with fantastical headdresses created from all manner of coloured plastic, metal and beads. Most have earrings, many of them shaped like animals’ teeth, beaded and hung with glittering items, worn from the top of the ear, pointing outwards. I can’t help wondering how they sleep with them. Many older men have extended ear lobes from the weight of earrings I assume they wore when they too were young and dashing. A man sitting on the doorstep in front of where I am dozing a bit from sun and dry air, wears a jerkin from World Vision (the American version of Oxfam, sometimes known as Blurred Vision); across the back is the advice – heeded by next to no one here: ‘Healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies’. Huh. Beneath that he wears Manchester United strip, a jacket made of entirely manmade fabric, probably by a sweatshop in China; it’s shiny and cheap, probably cost a rip-off fortune for some supporter before it became ‘mtumba’ wear – ‘used and thrown’, similar to Ghana’s ‘Broni Wawo’, or ‘white man dead’ clothes, the western charity shop rejects that end up in bales, sold by middle men and retailed on every African street market. Under his mismatched outfit he wears the local wrap-around cloth, worn skirt-like, from which protrudes a large panga (machete) in a bright beaded scabbard. He wears heavy ear studs the size of small egg cups, across which I can read the words, ‘Al Abassa Stores’. Everyone uses plastic sandals these days, not even the old car tyre sandals of a few years ago. The People’s Republic of China can make the plastic ones more cheaply, even if it does local craftsmen out of their time-honoured work of recycling rubber tyres. Nobody interferes with my peace; a few men gather curiously to ask where I am from and where I am going, and why I’m doing it. They just want to know; no one wants anything from me but to satisfy their curiosity and then to wish me a safe journey. They are universally congenial, greet me and shake my hand. My mugs of sickly sweet but reviving tea cost me 20 pence each. I hand the server a filthy, flimsy, grease-infused, sellotaped, floppy note worth 40 pence, ‘fifty bob’ here. We shake hands again and I get back on the Mosquito, watched by thirty pairs of eyes amongst ethnic beads and coloured clothes, pangas and babies, cabbages and onions, and ride away, out of their lives in a few moments.
Down the road I reconvene my daydreams and listen for the breakdown as I do so much. But Sam and Steve, who ‘have never met anyone like me before’ (apparently simple and friendly and meeting them as equals) have done a good job. Sam’s wife is in the final stages of pregnancy. “She might download today. Or tomorrow! If it is twins and one of them is a boy, I shall call it Jonathan after you, our dad!” Sam thinks it may be twins. “God may bless us doubly…” but the doctor thinks it’s only one. “I don’t like this scanning. The rays…” As such a fundamental Christian he has suspicions of science, preferring his certainty that god’s got it all worked out for him.
Nearing Archers Post another child waves from the roadside. He holds up a battered water bottle. It’s not uncommon for herdboys to beg for water from passing vehicles. I’ve only fifteen miles or so to go, so I stop and reach for my water bottles. The child must be about seven – African children are always smaller than western ones and he looks about five… The poor waif is skinny and dusty, dressed in tattered shorts, a cloth thrown over his shoulder. He’s probably been here with these few sheep and goats all day. There’s no habitation in sight, but they are often camouflaged by being made from the bush lands in which they sit. The boy is so shocked to have a mzungu stop that it takes moments to persuade him closer, fear all over his tiny face. I sign to him to give me his bottle, which he does, wide eyed, and I pour in some of the earth-flavoured tap water I have been drinking from Marsabit and pass it back. He is still apprehensive and just stands watching the white man on his motorbike, allowing just a tiny, timid wave as I ride away. He’ll probably never go to school – although it’s supposedly mandatory in Kenya, but these bush children slip through all those demographic nets. He’s just a small child, out there on his own. ‘It’s all they know’ is again the only explanation to what his life will be; he’ll herd the family sheep and goats, maybe promoted to donkeys then camels. He’ll wear the beads and headdresses, be a father by his late-teens, send out his sons to tend the sheep and goats, probably not live long, but it’ll be hard and deprived of all but the necessities to sustain a fairly short life. And so the cycle goes on in rural Africa, where people somehow eke a basic subsistence in the harshest of conditions.
It takes me until 4.00pm to reach Archers Post. By now I am cooked but the sun is getting a little more red, less of the searing brightness, more shadows and sculpting of the landscape. Archers Post is an outpost indeed, just some lock-up shops, some crude zinc and block homes, a few businesses – all here because of the national park around the town. Rich, fly-in tourists are secluded in lodges in the park, safe from local people, eating exotic food in their luxury ‘camp safaris’. Elephants wander through the town now and again, and there’s a lot of wildlife in the park. I went there with Rico back in 2001. But now I am heading back through the sand lanes to Rebecca’s women’s cooperative and it’s bandas (huts) and bar by the river. It’s six weeks or so since I was here and Rose, Rebecca’s assistant, remembers me. There aren’t that many white haired wazungu on motorbikes so I am something of a phenomenon. Sadly, Rebecca’s away for a few days, but I am made welcome and given a pleasant, quiet hut with a netted bed, a simple bathroom and a good meal. It’s the cool shower I need first though; a rest on the bed and then a couple of Tuskers. No need to feel guilty – or feel I should feel guilty – here. The river’s just a sluggish trickle now, dribbling through the desert in the gathering gloom. I am joined for supper by Carolyn, a lone traveller from Colorado, my age. She’s a bit disconcerted to be put at a table with me; she quickly admits she’s a loner, but we soon bond over our chapatis and VEGETABLES (!!!Wow, at last), as we agree about the joys of travelling as older people. She’s here to see the animals, excited by a cheetah she saw today; I’m here to meet the locals, more intrigued by the life of that roadside waif, but we make congenial supper company, as travellers passing like ships usually do, with the dark African night around us. She’s travelling – with her driver and guide – back to Nairobi tomorrow, and flying back to America tomorrow night. “For the first time I am embarrassed to be American! I saw a bumper sticker, ‘If you elect a clown, expect a circus’! Of course, it’s only one of many…”
About a month ago, an American tourist was killed in a random terrorist attack in Nairobi. “Thousands of Americans cancelled their bookings! Thousands!” says Carolyn. “People are so frightened of Africa. But there’s nothing to be frightened of!” It’s only her second visit to the continent, the other being to South Africa, and she’s learned this already.
“Yes,” I ask, “and how many people died in America that week from completely random mass shooting by some loony who bought an automatic gun in Walmart?”
“But mass shootings aren’t NEWS any more! (Even though they happen on average more than one a day in the US. ‘Mass’ being four or more dead). The media in the west makes so much of one poor tourist who happened to be in the wrong place at the time. If it’d been a Kenyan, it probably wouldn’t have made the news, but one American… Oho, that’s NEWS!”
It’s hot here. Even now at 9.30 I am sweating as I sit on my bed in the very silent night. How unlike the last time I was here, the night before New Year’s Eve, when the whole area shook to the beat and thump of the loudest music from a nearby bar until 4.00am. Now it is the peace of the African night, with the bush around me. Recently, elephants wandered past these bandas. That’s how I want to see my animals – not from a zebra-striped safari vehicle in radio contact with all the other safari cars, a cheetah in a circle of vehicles like a Tesco car park: just crossing the road or walking through the camp is much more compelling.
I’m tired tonight. The heat and dry air take their toll on these long rides. I think I shall sleep well in my small round house tonight. Time to sleep…
DAY 63. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 12th 2019. ARCHERS POST, KENYA
I’d like to think I learned my lesson a few weeks ago, and am taking my journey at a much more leisurely, satisfying pace. My character is to be busy all the time; to feel unproductive if I am idle; that White Anglo Saxon Protestant guilt. Of course, on all my earlier journeys I was making a delicate balance between limited money and the wish to see as much as I could, so I used to push myself relentlessly. That really doesn’t apply any more, one more advantage of older travel. I’m relatively financially secure, I have plenty of time – another month still to travel – and I am learning that I enjoy it more when I am not weary and tired. Maybe it’s an advantage of age that we learn to slow down and contemplate a bit. And when you find a place as congenial to satisfying sleep, that’s worth appreciating! Last night, under just a sheet, I slept deeply as I always do in very hot African nights, and dream-filled hours, a rarity for me.
When in flood, the sluggish trickle before me as I drink my Tusker this evening, is a wild torrent 100 yards wide, difficult to imagine now, as large wader birds peck at the sand amongst the slow meanders. “Oh, that tree over there,” says Rose, pointing at a spindly palm on the opposite slope, “that tree is in the middle of the river!” But it’s one of those rivers that doesn’t really go anywhere, just filtering away into the vast deserts to the east. Many rivers in this region do that, start as springs and dissolve into thirsty distant lands. I can never forget the Okavango Delta in the far northern desiccation of Botswana, a huge, wide river that flowed freely and fast, long log canoes negotiating small rapids, when I slept beside it one March night – which has no outlet at all. It just fans out and disappears into the boundless, illimitable arid wastes of gigantic sandy Botswana. “It’s springs that keep this river flowing,” Rose says, “springs in the desert there,” pointing west into the setting sun, a brilliant ball of gold that is losing the intensity and burning heat of the day here in Archers Post.
Earlier, I walked upriver in the heat of the midday sun, but not far, there’s not a lot to see and it’s too hot and dry to be a pleasant stroll. “Watch out for crocodiles and snakes,” warned a couple of fellows sitting beneath a tree upriver. But what did I see? A scampering squirrel. I’ve no doubt the crocodiles have retreated, along with the elephants that Rose, watering the plants round the bar, tells me are to be seen on the opposite dusty bank sometimes. I’d like to be able to say I’d seen elephants as I drank my Tusker, but it’s very unlikely at this dry time; most of them go to the artificially filled water holes in the parks, where the tourists are. Here in Samburu, big animals are big currency.
I’d love to photograph the wonderful beaded finery of both men and women in this Samburu tribe, fascinating headdresses and bangles, bright colours and brilliant decorations. But their glamour and style has become a commercial opportunity, here where white tourists abound for the big game park that is not unlike a zoo, only with better, more authentic scenery. I have never paid for a photograph; all my portraits are freely given, reactions to me as a fellow human, not commercial deals. So, sadly, I will probably have no record of these spectacular styles. Some of the younger women are dazzling in their hundreds of bright necklace rings.
Meandering the single, scruffy street that is the main road through Archers Post gave me more opportunities for observation – of my fellow animals, the two-legged ones. Many of them want to speak with me, curiosity that I enjoy. Mangu, a lined chap of 72, ex-military, wanted to talk about Margaret Thatcher (Grrrrr!) and the Falklands’ War, Winston Churchill, Tony Blair and the Gulf War (Grrrr!). Alexander wanted to talk about his army pal from England and life as I had seen it in Ethiopia, as I drank chai in a small hoteli. Larry was drunk on some local spirit – friendly enough, but to be eventually rebuffed for my peace. Several men, lounging idly about in the back alleys of what must be a market sometime in the week, were volubly inebriated on local brew and probable lack of food. Alcohol is such a huge problem all over Africa; alcohol combined with lack of decent sustenance. It was only lunchtime; the sun was high and hot – but many were cheerfully drunk to the point of instability. They’d continue drinking this poison for several more hours, more garrulous and rambling, destroying their livers, drinking to an even earlier death. Meanwhile, thankfully, most of the women stay sober – and do all the work… Just as well someone does, for most of the men are useless.
Jessica joined me after supper; I’m the sole guest here tonight. It’s sobering to understand what people will do for a job in these countries. Jessica is a single mother of three, aged 20 down to 13. She has left her children alone in Natiri Corner, a dusty town I recollect from an earlier journey, when I wrote on my map, ‘very bad road!’. It was a short cut; one of those that turned out to be gruelling and broken, to take me back to Kitale. For Jessica has travelled from near Kitale on the promise of work here in hot, remote Archers Post. She sends the money home of course, but her children have to fend for themselves far away in Natiri. It’s an economic fact of East African life. Her eldest is in technical school, studying plumbing. “Well, Kenya desperately needs plumbers!” I joked. “I haven’t been in a bathroom in East Africa that hadn’t a plumbing problem!” But I doubt the technical school in Natiri Corner has the wherewithal for much practical training, and I am sure he learns plumbing from a book.
The sun is now below the low western mountains, a dull fiery glow, on its way round the back of the planet to light us again tomorrow, beating down to heat my way south towards the highlands. There it’ll be blissfully cooler as I climb. The rise starts about fifty kilometres from this oven-parched town. Now the sky is utterly, crystal clear, a dome of translucent blue, with a tinge of metallic green that you only see in the African sunset. In an hour the stars will fill the eternal ultramarine vault with an unbelievable density of glittering galaxies and planets. If you haven’t seen the heavens from an African desert, where there’s no moisture to disguise the view outward to infinity, you can have no concept of the terrifying scale of the universe. I hope I remember the experience of sleeping on the sand in the middle of the Sahara as long as I live – the best days and nights of my life; and another reason for my warm friendship with Rico, for you cannot share such an experience without a long look at life and your own place in it.
DAY 64. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 13th 2019. NANYUKI, KENYA
There’s a man in Archers Post who makes ends meet, and doubtless supports his family, with what’s probably his main material possession, an old, much-repaired petrol-driven pressure washer. He washed off the Mosquito for 100 bob (75 pence) for me before I rode out of town, back across the remaining desert lowlands. So, twenty minutes later, when the bike began to cough and misfire, it seemed reasonable to think that there was water in the petrol. I struggled on a few miles to Isiolo, the largest town in the area, where I drained the petrol filter. The problem persisted, so I searched for a mechanic for advice, finding a scruffy alley of mechanics’ shanties, where I sought out one of the older men – with the assumption that they know more and try less to impress. Alex, a quietly amicable fellow with a soggy handshake, diagnosed a failing spark plug. I replaced it with my spare and Alex even walked with me to a shop where I could buy another spare. Happily, all is now well.
From Isiolo, the peak of Mount Kenya comes into view right ahead, patches of tenacious glacial snow still visible on its almost 17,000 foot peak, despite being on the Equator. Soon the climb begins back to the highlands. What a joy it is to leave behind the pressed, lifeless air of Archers Post and Isiolo, the parching heat, the stifling atmosphere of the last few days. Slowly I climb back to the fresh, clean, sweet air of the mountains, almost smelling those glaciers, and really sensing the fresh pine woods, the green fields, the waving green barley and wheat, the grey-green rapeseed fields. In just 10 kilometres or less the entire character of the landscape changes, back to the refreshing heights of central Kenya, leaving behind, in an endless panorama, the limitless, dry expanses below. What a physical and mental relief. My heart warmed to all the new aromas as my body cooled back to comfort.
Lucy and her sister, Isabella, welcomed me back for a couple of coffees and some carrot cake at the top of the hill, in the tranquil coffee house in its garden filled with geraniums, dahlias, sweet Williams, roses, lilies and fuscias like any English garden, but not in February. But coffee is forever spoiled for me by Ethiopia! I’ll never drink such delectable coffee again, unless I return. At breakfast this morning, instant coffee was proffered. I told them just to bring me Kenyan tea…
I DO like Kenya and its charming people! I grow increasingly fond of it. As I checked into the hotel tonight, my pannier bag broke its strap. Within moments, the car park guard was advising me where to find a repairer, and a few minutes later, someone from reception was walking with me to a street a little way off where I met delightful Lucy and her father Joel, working magic with old bags and zips, canvas covers and containers at a pair of elderly sewing machines. Kenyans love to joke and have a lovely curiosity. Lucy adroitly stitched up my bag for £1.50. Of course, I mistakenly asked her to stitch it the wrong way up, so soon I was back, amidst much laughter to have her redo her work, the other way round. That done, I wondered if she could fit a new zip to my camera bag? “Bring it!” she suggested. Back I went, and in the next hour, with a lot of banter and cheer, she put a new zip into my bag. Anything can be mended in Africa. In Europe I’d have been told to throw away the bag and buy a new one.
Kenyans are so concerned for my comfort and enjoyment. Jessica, the new employee at Archers Post, to whom I had given a banknote – about £8 – to send home to her children, rang this evening to see how my journey had been. Was I relaxing? How had my ride been? It’s very engaging, this solicitude. Everyone greets me, from boda-boda boys to businessmen. There’s always a smile and a quip, a sense of equality despite our skin colours. I am instantly discerned of course, by all and sundry, but I never feel any antipathy, any hostility, just a sense of warm welcome, helped of course by the smile on my face. It’s a real gift this nation has, making me feel so accepted and sometimes even cherished. Another text came from Sam in Marsabit: ‘Hello dad, I hope you’re on the road with good health and your bike is working well. Cheers good times God bless you.’
Nanyuki is at 6300 feet or so, so it’s much cooler and more refreshing tonight. This town is used to wazungu, for it’s a major British army base town. They practice manoeuvres in the deserts and bush around here, big open spaces. They add a lot to the economy of the town – and that of Kenya. My hotel tonight is adequate, a room with two large beds, bargained down to my usual 2000 shilling budget (£15.30). I’ve a room on the front so the road may be a trifle noisy by morning. I’ll miss the heat of the desert, in which I always sleep so well. However, tomorrow, on the road, I won’t miss it at all! I’m so happy to have that long, hot desert road behind me.
At 10.40, long after my bedtime, my phone vibrates and flashes its light by the bed. I use it for its torch and clock. A text message from Jessica: ‘May dear lord b with u as u retire to sleep miss u big!!’
And people still ask me, ‘aren’t you frightened, these places you go’?
DAY 65. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 14th 2019. NYAHURURU, KENYA
This is supposed to be Kenya’s highest town, but for a traveller who’s recently left Ethiopia, it no longer impresses in the same way. I’ve been here various times before, up in these rolling highlands, and today I had a calm, easy day and a very relaxed ride. Well, undemanding except for thirty hard kilometres of a rough short cut. That section gave me all the exercise I needed for the day, a rocky road across country to save tediously wending through the ugly, traffic filled town of Nyeri.
I’m heading back to visit William at Kessup, on my way home to Kitale, just a couple of days’ ride away now, but sometimes my journey just doesn’t split into convenient segments, so today I stopped early up here. Tomorrow I want to stay at one of my favourite hotels, another old colonial relic, also high and cool, surrounded by the tranquil gardens so loved of the white men who came to Africa a century and more ago, and tried to create a bit of England in these elevated places on the Equator. I’m writing my journal tonight in the bar of the Thomson’s Falls Lodge, another anachronistic survival from that period. I stayed here once, in 2001, but it’s shot up out of my budget range (I can’t imagine why I was able to stay here before..?) and now charges £50 a night. So I rode away to town and found a quite adequate rambling concrete hotel, where I can get a room for £8, but I will use the facilities of this amusing heirloom for my Tuskers and supper. The way I see it is that my eyes are shut when I’m in those cheap hotels asleep so, so long as I have a cleanish bed and a door I can lock, I’m fine there but may as well enjoy this sort of place while my eyes ARE open! Food is almost always reasonably priced by my European standards and tonight’s bed is very adequate, even if the hotel is a bit run down. And this old place, with its well-tended gardens running down to the Falls; baboons rather sinisterly treading the lawns, and its wood-lined old bar; its fake half-timbered exterior under the painted zinc roof sheets; its garnished pathways and faded glory, is really rather fun to enjoy for an hour or two. Sadly, it’s not warm enough to sit outside so I have to put up with the pounding bass beat from the room behind me and ubiquitous football league on screens that I have positioned to be out of sight, but I can still hear that ritual, aggressive chanting.
Traffic was light on my road today. When I went the other way a few weeks ago, it was racing and competing in the run up to the New Year holiday. It’s a fine ride, elevated, mountains all around on the horizons, including Mount Kenya, Africa’s second peak, and the Aberdares away to the south.
Twenty kilometres south of Nanyuki I had been advised to turn right at the police station in a small town. I’m not sure that I took the correct short cut, but eventually the one I took got me to the road I needed. “Nineteen kilometres; safe road!” Joel had told me, having dissuaded me from taking the longer rough road as I’d ‘meet lions and bandits, Maasai with guns..!’. It was probably just prejudice, I reckon, and a road he’d never taken and never will. But the policeman at the other end of it, when I stopped to ask if that was its point of issue: a vague dusty track emerging from the bush, did agree that it was in very poor condition, so maybe I would not have appreciated 60 miles of that. As it was, I took the Solio Road, as I’d been told. But it wasn’t 19 kilometres the way I took it; more like 30-plus! Maybe I got it wrong. It’s not easy finding your way on these remote roads; there are few people to ask – at least, few who have any idea where the other end of a road actually goes. People just don’t move much out of their immediate area on this continent; they’ve no material reason to do so and probably can’t afford it anyway. I bounced and bashed over a good few miles of bad rocky road, getting all the exercise I needed to make me doze part of the afternoon away when I got to Nyahururu. To one side of my road was an efficient fence. In the distance I saw three rhinos; most of Kenya’s animals are behind fences these days, for their own protection and because they represent big tourist dollars.
It’s high and cool, this road across the top of Kenya. From here I drop back into the Rift Valley and there’re no viable places to stay for the next 100 kilometres or so, so I decided, after a pot of masala tea (with ginger and spices, my favourite Kenyan beverage) and a plate of samosas in the Thomson’s Falls Lodge garden, served by waiters in white shirts and ties, to find a place in town. I’d been unable, despite fifteen minutes cheerful chatter with the Lodge manager, to persuade them that they could find me a room for less than a third their normal tariff! I soon found the Spanish Lodge in the town centre, a warren of rooms and floors with a bizarre external steel staircase. As I inspected and chose a room a heavy shower fell outside. “The first this year,” the pretty receptionist commented. It’s only the second time I have felt rain in 65 days, the other being brief showers near Nanyuki, that I left this morning, back at the end of the year.
The Mosquito has to stand in the busy street tonight next to the hotel door, a practice I usually avoid, but there’s no yard or car park in this cheap town centre development. There’s a guard though, who assures me he’ll watch it through the night. The crumpled 100 bob (75p) note I pressed into his hand will probably provide for its safety until morning.
DAY 66. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 15th 2019. KAPTAGAT, KENYA
It’s been that journey of multiple Equators again, for on yesterday and todays’ journeys I crossed the invisible line many times, some of them, as I’ve suspected before, being merely opportunistic commercial conveniences. But I am indeed on and around the middle of the globe; the sun itself tells me that as I ride along on my own shadow, even now, two months after the equinox. In the sky behind my hotel here at Kaptagat, I descry an early treat of the rains that will come within a few weeks; the clouds look heavy, but not yet weighty enough for rain. I’m high again and the climate here is that of the highlands, having dropped into and climbed out of the Great Rift Valley today, a westward journey that is distinguished by the enormous loss of altitude, down to the fiery temperatures of the valley bottom, then slowly back to the coniferous growth and cool of the other cheek of this vast fissure in the earth, clearly visible from the moon, that splits Africa from Jordan to Mozambique. I am happy to know the Rift Valley as well as I do now, one of the Earth’s most impressive geographical features. Once again, I used the dusty and rocky short cut across the bottom of the valley, fifteen rough miles criss-crossing the old colonial railway tracks, past small villages and shambas through bush country. People in these rural areas are so friendly, waving enthusiastically to see a mzungu on their remote trails.
I do begin to wonder how much longer I will be able to ride these places, though. The time is coming for some serious assessment of the continued viability of my little Mosquito for further long journeys. I am losing confidence in it, and wonder if I have just pushed the small machine too far, these three winters? Despite the recent major rebuild – and, remember, I watched every bit of that, and while I may be a crap mechanic myself, I do have enough knowledge after 40 years’ of biking, to be able to tell when a job is done well. I believe Sam did an efficient job. However, the little engine is burning up to half a litre of oil a day, and this in an engine with an oil capacity of less than one litre… It is ailing. Also today, I was fortunate to spot the drive sprocket coming loose once again – the fourth time. Happily, I have left off the chain cover so I can watch the bolt spinning round, and saw, just in time, that despite a lock-washer and superglue on the threads, it was unwinding. Suzuki must have a better solution – but it’s not readily available here.
Well, it’s going to be time to consider my longer term plans anyway soon. For now, I am almost back at Kitale and have just a few shorter journeys planned for the remaining three and a half weeks of this safari. Maybe I’ll keep the Mosquito a bit longer so I can still visit my very valued friends in Kitale, even on shorter trips, and then maybe it’s time to consider further investment in wheels elsewhere? I turn 70 soon, but am still capable and interested to ride on these terrific journeys; travelling is so much part of what and whom I am after all. While I can still swing my leg over these tall bikes, and still put on my socks while standing up (as I do on principle, having once read that the first sign of old age is sitting down to put on your socks!), I want to continue with these minor adventures. This has been my eleventh African bike journey.
A major review is due. The little Mosquito has performed valiantly, considering its size. It now has 95,000 kilometres on the clock and maybe it’s just asking too much to expect much more. I’d like some extra power, as this year’s journal must have witnessed! Well, to be pondered at leisure…
Last night’s hotel proved entirely adequate for its purpose: a night’s sleep in a comfortable, clean bed, with a part-functioning bathroom (it’s not reasonable to ask for more, just about anywhere on this continent, in my experience). It turned out that even breakfast was included. I elected to pay £11.50 instead of the £8 I could have paid, to get a bigger bed in a sunnier room. It was just fine. Eat your heart out, the old colonial Thomson’s Falls Lodge at £50!
Tonight finds me at the Kaptagat Hotel again. I’ve stayed here several times and routed myself purposely to return. It’s another colonial relic set in delightful mature gardens. The rooms are faded at best; there’s no water during the day and the candlewick bedspreads suggest another era. My room is large, bay-windowed and rather charming in an old fashioned way. The floors are polished wood, the furniture was once quite good: solidly built hardwood; the bathroom with an ancient cast iron bath. It is peaceful, this Friday night, the bar just far enough away, with its habitual local drunks, who were probably here, imbibing injurious ‘KK’ (Kenya Kane spirit that should be banned on health grounds, also known as ‘kill me quick’) last time I stayed, a year ago. A bunch of semi-comatose men drunkenly watch a noisy TV, showing a silly remake of King Kong, with insultingly stereotypical scenes of half naked natives dancing round a fire; the sort of thoughtless characterisation that, to this day, portrays Africa as ‘backward’, made in a culture whose president calls Africa ‘shithole countries’. I prefer to bring my beer to my porch, gazing over the gardens, amused by the tall poinsettia bushes that remind me of the sorry Christmas pot plants of home. Here they grow into multi-flowered trees. I hope the cook will come up with some decent food (I visited the kitchen last year, but decided once was enough) and that Ellen, the friendly attendant, from whom I got a warm hug, will remember to light the log fire in my room. It does get cold up here at night, and the big cedar fire is a feature of my stays. There’s an inglenook in the bar big enough to park a large car, and with investment and better management – the eternal African problem – this could become a charming ‘niche’ hotel for rich tourists. I’m glad it hasn’t…
My health remains excellent on these journeys all over Africa. I’m sure stress is the major cause of ill health in our western lifestyles, and I don’t have much of that on these free and easy trips. I had that chest infection, now pretty well worked out. Most world travellers will tell stories of the runs – not me! I eat from street stalls, drink tap water, and even well water on occasion; I share utensils as is the fashion, eat from the same dishes with fingers, as in Ethiopia; take virtually no precautions beyond the obvious; drink local brews from old plastic containers. Last time I had diarrhoea was in Ghana about three years back, when I ate contaminated food at a big funeral. “We never eat at funerals,” said Perry. But I was enjoying the – very loud, actually – music, and replied, shouting, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve a stomach like stainless steel!” Perry was reluctant, but bowed to my confidence. Later I understood his concern, but, hah, I carry some pills for just this incidence. That night I dosed myself regularly – with no effect whatsoever. My disquieting ailment continued. It wasn’t until after twelve hours of ineffectual treatment that I noticed that my tablets were out of date by 10 years! The last time I had had reason to purchase medicine for my stomach was 12 years before, and I had been carrying them in my travel kit way beyond any effectiveness! More often, I suffer the opposite, from sitting all day on the bike and dehydration; it seems laxatives keep their efficiency better; mine have a price label in South African rand!
Now I have a severe itch on my lower back. It’s just sweat rash from wearing an elasticated back support in the extreme heat. The support is very helpful on the long rides. This morning I found I had parked the Mosquito outside a pharmacy under the hotel overnight. I went in and asked for calamine lotion. “Oh, I can give you something much better!” exclaimed the shopkeeper, for despite a white jacket to inspire confidence, these are not pharmacists, just shop assistants. He proffered an ointment. In Africa, I always open the box and read the enclosed papers. The stuff he was offering would probably have flayed the skin off my back! It actually stated that this medicine was for treatment when all lesser preparations had failed. At least he didn’t offer the customary antibiotics… It’s so dangerous, playing with these western medicines without the necessary training and information. Old Akay, Wechiga and Perry’s mother, would have had an effective local remedy, cooked up in a pot from some leaves. I’d have been happy with that, but all that knowledge is being forgotten by the younger, ‘smarter’ and commercially manipulated generations. They buy white man’s potions, and the profits zip right back to laughing executives in multi-national corporations in Switzerland and India.
I got my fire. The two Ellens brought a fire lighter and sticks, piled on logs from my room and I am now soporific, after a surprisingly good dinner cooked over sticks behind the grim kitchen (chicken, with stew, rice and spinach) beside a wonderful flaming, aromatic blaze. It’s such a feature of this quaint old hotel, with its bungalow rooms and quiet garden. One of the greatest pleasures is to go to sleep with the ashes glowing in the bedroom fireplace and the gentle smell of the cedar and pine smoke curling around the warm room. Where in the world else would you get this delight, firelight flickering across the room, for £15 after a ride in scenery such as today’s?
Life is good.
DAY 67. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 16th 2019. KESSUP, KENYA
Back to familiar Kessup, where William directs the guest house to my exact comforts. “I’ll go and see where the food is,” he says. It is three minutes past seven. “I ordered it for 7.00.” William likes his punctuality. “Oh, we learned this from the British! The British, they like time!” He still operates from his mean little shamba and his four cows, with the discipline he had when he was a police inspector in the Nairobi CID, a post he left, you may recollect, after a brutal machete attack that almost cost him his life and did cost him all his sense of security. He preferred life, living on a shoestring in a broken shack in Kessup.
I am ‘William’s Mzungu’ here. “Jonathan, you have given me such a good name in Kessup! Everyone knows you come to see me; it was very good what you said to Francis (the guest house owner), that you come to Lelin Campsite to see William! I was very happy!” It’s a pity it takes the endorsement of a white skin, but I reckon William is pretty well regarded round here anyway, for his steadfast, honourable qualities. He doesn’t like dishonesty in any form, even emotional and social. It’s difficult to see how he operated in a corrupt police force. He’s a decent man and well respected by his community. He leads a very simple life – I have no idea how he makes ends meet, except small gifts from me once or twice a year, the support of his daughter, studying nursing in Perth, and an occasional guiding job for a couple of guest houses. But I know he pretty much lives on the vegetables he grows and the milk of his cows. He looks smarter and more spruce and healthy since I saw him two months ago. I greeted him with the information. “I have left the cigarettes! I knew they were bad, and I didn’t need them. About a month and a half now.”
“Tomorrow, we will walk in the villages. Rael, she wants to make you lunch, and this person up here,” pointing over his shoulder up the hillside, where we sit drinking slightly warm beer at The Rock bar, “she wants you to photograph her children. Oh, people love your photographs! And I read your book. Haha! How it made me laugh! ‘William likes his punctuality’, you wrote, ‘we have 26 minutes left to drink our beer!’ Haha. I laughed!”
“Oh, you have given me a great name in Kessup. They will all be pleased to see William’s Mzungu!”
It was a light day’s riding. I came back to Kessup – all roads I know very well by now – by my favourite route, down that incredible staircase of a rocky, dirt road deep into the Rift Valley once again. How those engineers made a road down that steepest of escarpments, lined by towering cliffs, the extensive misty vistas of the Kerio Valley, an arm of the Rift, opening to the east, trails visible through the thorny bush far below, I cannot imagine. It is a feat.
The road has been hacked down the steep mountainsides, twisting this way and that, using whatever natural reductions in the sharp incline it can. It’s something over ten miles, warmth increasing as I ride downward, just to reach the valley floor and the trickle of river – at this season – with its sign about crocodile awareness. Then it’s a further 15 or 20 to the tar road that sweeps down from Kabarnet on the eastern flank of the valley and winds it’s way back up to Iten, via Kessup, on the western edge.
Equator notwithstanding, it’s altitude that makes the climate here. I awoke in Kaptagat to a cool, cloudy morning, cool enough to search out my fleece jerkin from my bag as I went to sit in the garden to order breakfast. The remnants of a light shower were visible on my bike seat and in the rich gardens. The rainy season is beginning to creep nearer. It’s the one mismatch between my desire to spend most of the winter out of the gloom and greyness of Devon, and the actuality: that the rains start in mid-March in East Africa. Otherwise, I’d stay away until the end of March, when the clocks change and spring is in the Devonian air. As it is, rainy weather takes a lot of the pleasure out of motorbike journeys, even in the warm rain of Africa.
Tonight there are rain clouds gathering above Kessup, blowing in from the great valley below. “It will only be a shower,” says William, who knows the weather of his home. “It might rain a few minutes; the rain here doesn’t come until the 10th to the 15th of March.” And, sure enough, it was but a brief shower that fell as we ate supper, little more than a refreshing smell of damp earth and a susurration of drops on the thatched roof of the shelter under which we sat.
I was joined at breakfast, under another thatched palaver hut in Kaptagat gardens, by one of the many runners, for which this region is famous. For some reason, maybe not unconnected with the altitude, this county of Kenya is known for the prowess of its runners. Many of the world athletes train around here. Mike Keegan is a fellow I met in the same garden, at the same seat last year. He trains every morning in this harsh environment: “Sometimes we are taken down to the barrier (the one by the river in the valley bottom on that serpentine road) and run up to the top.” It must be a climb of four or five thousand feet. Mike now has a Turkish passport. “Do you run in their colours then?” I asked. “Yes, unless I am running in the Olympics or some of the other marathons, because I am sponsored by Nike, and must run in their colours.” Mike trains with the three-time marathon world champion, whose name, a little shamefacedly, I had to admit I didn’t know, and with the engaging Sir Mo, amongst other luminaries of the running world. “Excuse me, I must go and relax. This is a picture of my family in town,” offering a snapshot of a pretty young wife and two small girls. “Safe journey, I hope to see you next year!” It was not quite ten, and Mike, 33, had already run twenty five kilometres or more. I’d just about crawled from a comfortable bed into the consciousness of a new day that would bring me, on wheels, through the great valley once again.
I’d texted William that I would arrive today, knowing that he would arrange my usual accommodation at the campsite: ‘my’ room, Mexico. He had done just that, ordering supper (for 7.00 on the dot) and assuring that all my preferences were complied with: “Did they bring the soft pillow? I told them to put the beer to cool, I know you like it ‘baridi’! I brought the green vegetables you like; Timothy will cook them. He’s the manager now. The one you didn’t like was sacked!”
So we sat and caught up over a couple of bottles of Tusker at the bar across the road. The beer’s 20 bob cheaper there and William doesn’t like me to waste my money! Then we repaired to one of the thatched huts in the campsite, where William brought a small brazier of charcoal to keep me comfortable. Nothing is too much trouble for William, looking after his mzungu. Everything must be just the way I like it (as if I really cared!) and he must be a pain for the guest house management – but they also know that I would not be here if he didn’t have his scruffy little shamba next door. He’s a decent, kindly man. Okay, I pay the bills, but he’s one of those Africans that I know instinctively, would pay MY bills – if he had any money in his pocket. In these circumstances, I don’t feel exploited or resentful. A few pounds is worthwhile, for a warm friendship and a generous introduction to the entire community, for whom I am not just ‘William’s mzungu’, but theirs too after all these visits.
DAY 68. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 17th 2019. KESSUP, KENYA
A day spent ambling the dusty paths between the small fields and shambas of a Kenyan rural area, doesn’t sound very interesting, but to me, who enjoys meeting people and finding out how they live, it is satisfying, especially so when it’s the latest of several visits and I am meeting people, and recognising them, for another time. I’ve written it before: going back is important in Africa; it shows respect and confers status: it shows that these people, who generally have little respect shown them, are important and worthy of revisiting. William’s Mzungu also gains a lot of respect. So, of course, does William in his own community.
After a leisurely breakfast in the campsite gardens, gazing out over the enormous Kerio Valley below as I spooned down William’s homemade, delicious yoghurt, infused with blemishes of black ash from some medicinal tree, we set off down the hillsides to visit the old man who lives below my campsite room. Rongoe is 90 years old, a great age in this community. Not many make it to such a great age in Kenya, let alone in these rough, rural areas. But life in Kessup is not bad; the climate is somewhat temperate by Kenyan standards, the area is fertile, and it’s peaceful. With a large family to care for the occasional aged survivor, they may keep going a long time. Rongoe cannot walk any more, but lives in a small earth house in reasonable comfort (for the edges of poverty in rural Africa), looked after by grandchildren aplenty. I love to take portraits, and Kessup has provided a multitude, thanks to William’s sensitive knowledge of his community, and the almost legendary status of his mzungu guest, who brings back packs of photos after each visit. But old people in Africa, unused to cameras and now mobile phones, always pose rigidly in front of a camera. Maybe Rongoe remembers being photographed in a formal situation for a colonial work pass. A smile was definitely out of the question.
Not so for so many others in Kessup as we wandered the quiet Sunday tracks and fields towards a terrace on which sits a homestead and bulsa bar where we are well known. Everyone smiled and greeted the visiting white man, some of them even remembering my name. William has done a great job in giving out the photos I have taken and in taking round his valuable possession: the books I have made from my trips, these past couple of years.
It’s so gratifying to become known in such a place. I can feel the respect in which I am held for my return visits. I’m also becoming a bit of a legend for adapting to the ways of the village – not that difficult actually. I will drink bulsa – the maize and millet home brew beer, thick and fibrous, not very much to my taste, I admit, but I don’t have to imbibe it very often, so I can handle it. I’m respected for drinking it from an old plastic container. Why not? I told William that I was only concerned that the pot had been rinsed out, not for the fact that it was covered in writing about the cooking fat it had originally contained. Atanas’s father, Gold, an elder of the village, with whom I have taken bulsa before, won’t deign to drink from a ‘plastic’, demanding a mug, as he thinks befits his status. Atanas, a friend of William’s, was making big jokes at his absent father’s expense. Gold is in for a LOT of ribbing whenever he goes next for bulsa.
We clambered slowly back up the hillsides, greeting and shaking hands with everyone. William knows his community and is obviously liked here for his straightforward nature and integrity. We repaired to The Rock once again. Two beers each, even though it’s the mid-afternoon, and elsewhere beer time is 6.00 for me. In Kessup I just adapt to a very relaxed schedule. “We have 36 minutes more,” says William, and it’s now becoming a joke against himself. “We will leave at 4.00, then you can relax for one and a half, maybe two hours. I will organise your supper for 6.30!” And so he does, cracking his ‘British time’ whip back at the campsite so that ‘his’ mzungu can eat a little earlier to avoid the indigestion of last night.
There’s been a delightful breeze all day, enough to temper the searchlight heat of the equatorial sun a bit. As I write, at 8.30, the windows rattle and the wind is getting up. But it’s a bright, clear moonlit night now, no rain in sight. The huge valley spreads calmly thousands of feet below my window, up here on the edge of the escarpment. Down below, it is much hotter and more oppressive, bush lands sprawling to the northern horizon, for we are towards the southern end of the Kerio Valley. Elephants roam in the centre of my vast moonlit landscape. I know that but of course I can’t see such detail. Somewhere down there, the magic of storybook Africa is manifest under the sharp, white moonlight, the stars reaching in a vast arc overhead. It IS romantic to gaze from my window at this very small part of the wonder that is Africa.
8.47, be blowed to William’s schedules and time keeping, my body and brain tell me it’s time to sleep! Me, who seldom sleeps before at least the midnight hour of any day at home; often in bed by nine here.
DAY 69. MONDAY FEBRUARY 18th 2019. KESSUP, KENYA
“You are my guest. I have to make sure you are cum-fort-ible!” says William fifty times a day. He brings my enamel mug of milk fresh from his cows first thing to the guest house, before I am even up and about, orders my breakfast, arranges the menu for supper and so on. How the staff must curse him! Or maybe, as a long term neighbour, they just accept it and attempt to keep to his timetables? It’s amusing for me to watch!
I just came to bed. It’s 8.30 and a glorious, dazzling African night outside. We have sat at a table on the grass terrace, overlooking the fabulous valley, miles wide and now bathed in the brightest milky moonlight. I guess tomorrow is full moon, for the shining disc is just faintly elongated up there tonight. We sat as the sun set, somewhere behind the mountains above us, casting its pink glow on a few wispy clouds to the east, the bright circle of the moon already clearly visible in the crystal blue sky. Darkness fell slowly tonight, aided by the brilliance of the moon. The air was still and the evening silent, a magical end to an oppressive day, during which temperatures had soared under a spectacular arch of endless deep blue equatorial sky.
There’s a brittle, deep, deep dark sky tonight, the stars like shining jewels. The moon is clear, all its features etched on its iridescent surface, for there’s no moisture in the air this evening to dim its brilliance.
Once again William and I meandered the paths and tracks of the rural Kessup plateau, meeting many more cheerful inhabitants, welcomed universally, entertained and interviewed by all and sundry. Everyone has time here, unlike the way we behave in the sophisticated west: time to spend in valuable conversation and communication, exchanging information and opinion, learning and educating, broadening knowledge, enjoying companionship. It’s something we’ve lost in our ‘time’s money’ fixation: just that pleasure in social interaction, sitting on a rock, standing beneath the shady trees, just being together despite our differences. For half an hour or more I chatted in a circle of shady mature trees that form the local community meeting point. Six or seven village people gathered round to quiz me on life in Europe and my experiences of Ethiopia, a neighbour about whom most know almost nothing – (except perhaps an innate inherited prejudice of slight superiority!). One young man in particular, Gideon, a recent school leaver of 19 or 20 was very bright, asking and phrasing his questions with great intelligence. Very seldom do people in communities like this ever get a chance to listen first hand to a foreigner. They may see a few wazungu staying at the campsite or sailing remotely overhead on para-gliders – for this is an ‘adventure sports’ location – but those people almost never interact with the people; they fly in, soar about on their expensive devices, land and trample on people’s crops and are whisked back to their exclusive hotel on the clifftop. Not many wander into the ‘poor’, ‘undeveloped’ villages, possibly dismissing the people as mere rural peasants – but hidden here, un-dismissable, is so much human warmth, humour, kindness – and yes, intelligence and knowledge; hidden amongst these agrarian folk, scratching a living, through necessity not choice, in their shambas. Gideon’s father was a junior officer when William was in the Flying Squad in Nairobi, so he will have the opportunity of university. Some do. Parents, those educated themselves, will struggle to help their offspring through tertiary education, to move their families forward to better futures. Everywhere I have travelled on this continent there’s huge respect for education and teachers. It’s only in uneducated, illiterate families that this is allowed to waver. I’ve so much enjoyed getting to know one small area, just a mile or two in extent, so well; becoming familiar with, and to, many of the people, as “William’s Mzungu’.
“This is the poorest part of the villages,” said William as we walked towards the south of Kessup’s fertile plateau. True, the houses looked meagre, untidy and less orderly. “Why’s that? The soil looks the same..?”
“Education. Only education. The families here just don’t encourage their children.” I’ve developed another rule of thumb assessment of education levels in Kessup for myself; teeth. If teeth are stained and brown, as can be the case even in small children with their milk teeth, the family is often less educated.
But I have met many charming people and children too. Children are excited to shake a mzungu’s hand, most probably for the first time. They ask for nothing; not a soul has demeaned themselves to beg for anything. There’s a self-respect and pride here which is entirely admirable, and a generosity to the stranger that is most engaging. It’s manifested as an openness and in the smiles and warmth of my welcome everywhere, into compounds, in the fields, in the small, simple houses. If anyone has anything: fresh avocados, bananas, a flask of tea – they will offer me sustenance and rest. My wanderings here help me to understand the lives of ordinary folk in Kenya and put my own journeys into perspective – let alone life in privileged Europe!
Our days take on a certain pattern. I eat my breakfast, multiple omelettes and a flask of mixed tea, under the shade of a tree with the wonderful view before me. William has brought me fresh milk this morning. He will arrive with his invariable query about how was my night; we’ll sit a few minutes, William nursing his phone for its clock. At ten we leave on our wandering, down the dusty paths and rocks amongst shambas and small homesteads. At 1.30 we find ourselves in the same chairs as yesterday at The Rock bar. Two Tuskers and a relaxed chat until three, when, clock in hand, William tells me, “We can go now..?” Then he looks to his cows while I relax until six. Then he is in supper-controlling mode, making sure my supper is being cooked as I like it, and on time! A couple more Tuskers (in the evening I mix a bottle of light lager Tusker with a Guinness for a darker, more satisfying mix), and by eight we are ready to part, William perhaps to watch his beloved Manchester City on the satellite TV his daughter has subsidised, perhaps as a diversion from drinking beer – for which he has no money anyway, and me away to my room and diary writing and indigestion from a meat-heavy meal that makes me yearn for my home vegetarian diet. But I know the meat is fresh and natural: it was led, protesting, past my table as I ate breakfast!
Accompanying the goat are delicious local potatoes fried whole and crispy and vegetables that William has arranged, that grow wild at this season. “Only ten bob!” he assures me. He eats the meat and potatoes, leaving the thick rich vegetables to me. “Why should I eat vegetables? I eat them all the time!” But it’s not often he can afford meat, so he takes advantage of my rather small appetite for the goat. Sometimes, he slips the remaining potatoes and meat into the cling film from one of the serving bowls – for the kitchen is 70 yards away across the gardens. “Breakfast!” he declares. “Why should they throw it away?” He’s kindly though; he always asks the serving girls if they have eaten, for commonly, what goes back to the kitchen in Africa, feeds the staff… Tonight, no left-overs for William. “Oh, I have my yoghurt, I will be very OK!”
DAY 70 TUESDAY FEBRUARY 19th 2019. KESSUP, KENYA
Our third day didn’t much vary the programme. William, with his disciplined mind, likes a routine. And as for me, I’ll just adapt to pretty much anything so long as I am having an interesting time. Today we walked further, down to the edge of the escarpment, out below my window. The landscape rises in a series of large steps: a steep rise of thousands of feet up from the burning valley floor, then the Kessup plateau; next some gentle rises up to the main road, beyond which the ground rises more sharply until it meets the base of the cliffs that form the final thousand feet or so up to the highland plateau, that stretches all the way to Kitale and Uganda.
The day was very hot; this evening a light shower and drifting heavy clouds have ruined any hope of a repeat of the magnificent moonlit glamour of last evening. Tonight, we had to retreat into one of the shelters to eat our supper and drink our beers. The day, though, was sweltering, the sun beating down as we walked, me grateful for the slightest shade of trees. Down on the outer limit of the plateau, just before the land drops sharply away to the final huge slope to the valley floor, the land is dry and dusty, life harsh for the inhabitants who have their shambas so far from the water supply that drops from the top cliffs. Not much grows down there, except hardy maize. And the maize is planted on any patch of soil that can be garnered from the rocks and undergrowth. Small homes: rude shacks of zinc that must be like ovens, stand in the dust and rock on the inhospitable slopes. Around them, every tree has been sacrificed to firewood and to make way for maize. So the world gets hotter, the soils wash away and get exhausted, life gets harder. It’s the short-termism of African life; the constant need for immediate subsistence taking precedence over any long term plans – should there even be the consciousness of such ecological imperative, which is doubtful. It can be a strength of Africans, to live in the moment, to think of today, to deal with the immediate needs – but it’s a dire weakness that almost no one thinks of the future. It’s just not the mindset of most people on this continent, so preparation for future benefit is unknown – hence many of the famines that happen, when people eat their seed crops to survive the present emergency. I was SO impressed two years ago, when Alex, whom I hope to see in a week or so, told me that he and Precious had used the £35 or so that I gave them, when I was about to leave Uganda, to buy seed potatoes that enabled them to weather a terrible season, and even provide their neighbours with food when many were going hungry, having eaten their seed stores. But it takes the intelligence and wisdom of an Alex to think thus. That fortitude and foresight is uncommon.
It’s showery tonight as I write. I can hear rain drumming lightly on the zinc roof of my room. I hope the rains won’t come early. It’s fun, though, to hear the croaking and singing of happy frogs after just a brief sprinkling of rain, just about enough to produce a bright rainbow above the parched Kerio Valley as the sun sank behind the confining cliff face above us.
Apart from the fine view, one of the best things about the Lelin Campsite (where only once I saw anyone camping) is the peace and quiet to enjoy the gardens and the valley views. It’s so rare to have no amplified bad music and no roaring football league. Here we can sit and gaze and listen to the birds, or tonight the frogs. There are three blocks of rooms, four to a block, two upstairs opening onto the hill and with windows to the big valley, and two below, opening onto the earth terrace from which the valley drops away. It’s 200 metres from the road, so there is no disturbance. The only drawback is when other rooms in my block are occupied, for they are built of the commonest East African material: reinforced concrete frames – and no African closes a door he can slam, the crash resonating through the structure! But usually I am on my own, and can just listen to voices floating up from the fields and homesteads spread below, the lowing of cows and the fussing of goats. After all my visits, the management does me a deal of under £12 a night, and seem content to feed William on my ticket. My bill for four nights, four breakfasts, 17 bottles of beer and four dinners – bearing in mind that two of us eat and William takes away the remaining food (!) will be £100. If I DO come to Kenya next winter, even on a shorter trip, William really wants me to bring Rico and Adelight and family for a short holiday. We might well do that. It’s a lovely location.
So tomorrow back home to Kitale, about six thousand kilometres since I left. Just three weeks of my East African safari left – for now anyway.