EAST AFRICA 2018 – 2019 – TWELVE



Quiet days winding down to leaving Africa once again, and here in another ‘Jonathan’s House’ – that’s what the family call the house in the garden – I leave my bags containing my African helmet, rinding trousers, jacket, goggles, gloves, and various items of clothing and effects for another safari, whenever that may occur. I’ve no plans just now, beyond the fact that I have taken the bike for a thorough wash and now it returns to Rico’s garage pending a visit at some other time. Meanwhile, I must decide what I want to do next winter! I know I don’t willingly want to spend it in the cold and damp: conditions to which I become increasingly unequal. 


It’s mid-evening on the 13th and I just checked in with KLM for my flight home to Europe late tomorrow night, so my safari is essentially over. Here I am in Nairobi, a capital changed more than I can comprehend from the city I first experienced in 2001, when it had the sobriquet ‘Nairoberry’, for its violence, crime and decrepitude. Now it’s a modern city, impressive amongst African capitals, and a calm, relaxing place to visit – unless you happen to be on foot, when it’s considerably more stressful as no provision is made for pedestrians. Such pavements as there are are dug up to drain the all-important roads leaving a yawning obstacle course, or they peter out, leaving no choice but to risk crossing eight lanes of speeding traffic to join an insignificant pavement on the other side, or more often just a stretch of dust littered with trip-hazardous debris and abandoned cars – which their owners think they’ve parked. 

But beyond the irritation that the car always demands and expects precedence – a status by which I refuse to cowed, much to drivers’ astonishment – it’s a disciplined, quiet city, probably one of the best in Africa now. It wasn’t thus in 2001 or 2002 when crime was rife and even I got mugged in the street: two youths tearing off my shirt pocket while other pedestrians watched. Those petty thieves must have been disappointed by the museum ticket and scribbled notes for my diary. 

Happily, the city feels nothing like that now. Drivers are quiet and relatively courteous to each other, if not pedestrians. Traffic moves and there’s evidence of a fairly vibrant economy. It’s an expensive city, cosmopolitan and smart. People are well dressed, polite and respectful, buildings relatively well maintained and purposeful; public spaces rather threadbare, but they exist. The main thoroughfares have kept their trees and provide a bit of shade and soften the cityscape considerably. 

I’m helped in my accepting mood by finding one of the best places I have stayed on this journey. Adelight told me of the United Kenya Club, and I decided to try it. It’s terrific. It is bang in the city centre, set in its own quite expansive grounds. A private member’s club in that rather colonial mould that somehow survives and is kept alive by the older breed of Kenyans, it is slightly old fashioned, in a 1960s sort if style, with funny habits and rules on which these places seem to thrive: reserved parking for the President, ‘First Vice’, ‘Second Vice’, ‘Past President’; no moving the chairs in the lounge; no mobile phones in the restaurant; members only in the library. I can become a temporary member and have a very pleasant room, with a balcony overlooking the gardens, en suite (everything WORKS in the bathroom!) and access to the terrace and restaurant in the gardens. The roads beyond are a little noisy, as I am right at the hub of the city, so ambulances and sirens do make for a bit of disturbance, but I will remember this place for future visits. And it’s ‘only’ £27 for bed and breakfast. On my incoming night I paid £47 for a gloomy room in a suburb. This IS an expensive city, and to find a room so central, civilised and comfortable for 3500 bob -with breakfast – is excellent. 


Yesterday morning – I’m writing on Wednesday evening in the Club bar terrace – I left my kind, generous and close friends, Adelight and Rico, at the Kitale Airstrip and flew down to Nairobi.  The flight’s not the fun it was when the planes were 13-seater Cessnas; they are now 36-seater Dash 8s and fly at twice the altitude. Flying at 8000 and 9000 feet (when Kenya is at 5000) was such fun. It’s all remote from 19,000 feet, and I struggled to pick out the roads I have ridden these past weeks, the unsurpassed scenery that surrounds the Great Rift Valley, itself less impressive from so much higher. Best ever, of course, was the time – in 2001 – when I flew across the deserts from Lodwar to Nairobi in a six-seater, single engine aircraft, sitting beside the pilot for a couple of hours, skimming the escarpments of the Rift, flying over the red dust of roads that I had ridden on the borrowed Honda for three memorable weeks. 

Well, this time, I arrived prosaically at Wilson Airport, busy with many small planes that fly all over Kenya: safari companies and commercial internal flights. From there I bargained hard for a taxi to downtown Nairobi. “Help the youth!” was a new encouragement (from a taxi driver well past youth!) that I hadn’t heard before. It’s funny: if there was a fixed price, I’d pay up as required, but if they insist on no fixed price and hoping to rip me off, I will bargain aggressively. It’s their choice, after all. From 1500 bob, I found a driver for whom the bird in the hand weighed in at 800. John, was his name. “Are you a Christian?” I find the question intrusive and loaded, but it’s so common here. I usually just grunt and that passes for some sort of admission with those who hear what they want to hear. I’m not going to have a philosophical discourse about atheism versus blind belief with a taxi driver!


I checked in to my sunny room over the garden and walked (much to the shock of the receptionists) to Westlands shopping area, a mile and a half away, where I had an appointment with the people who repaired my iPad screen before Christmas. It’s still malfunctioning, which is why I came to Nairobi a day early. Today I got the probably bad news that it may not function again… For now, I have a replacement pad that I will have to return to Nairobi in due course, when the very pleasant, diligent people with whom I have been dealing, have assessed, with Apple, whether the screen will be replaced again and my own iPad couriered to me, or it will have to be scrapped (£700 or so out of the window thanks to my stupidity of strapping that bag on the back of the Mosquito on the first ride from Nashon back to Kitale). Technology is all very well – but my faith that Apple will feel any sympathy for the fact that the initial ‘repair’ didn’t work, is slim. They’ll want me to buy a replacement, which is why as soon as even an authorised repairer replaces the glass screen, they absolve themselves of all responsibility… 

Sarah, the woman with whom Adelight and I have dealt, was kindness itself. A quiet, chubby young woman, she has been diligent and impressive in her customer care, even ringing Adelight while I was travelling to see if the repair had righted itself. Nicodemus, the engineer, spent an hour and a half this morning, copying all my files and trying to provide me with a useful alternative. Well, I will be at home in 36 hours and, being of the analogue generation, all my important stuff is backed up in notebooks and handwritten lists, and all my photos still on my camera card. Nothing irrevocably lost – just none of my own films or operas to watch on KLM tomorrow night. I guess I’ll manage. I managed for 60-odd years without an iPad, after all. 


It’s grand to be sitting outside on the bar terrace in downtown Nairobi after nine at night. I’d better savour the feeling: it won’t be like this in 36 hours…


Another trip ended. I spend so much of my time travelling these days that it comes easier to complete a journey; I know there’ll be another one, all being well, and probably quite soon. 

Check out time was 10.30, so I was at a bit of a loss for a day’s entertainment. The club looked after my bag, which left me free to wander. I needed reading matter, so I thought I’d try to find a bookshop. Huh! I walked for hours – in fact six hours – and found one decent bookshop filled with very expensive imported books, and all the street stalls, selling second hand tomes imported from USA, sold mainly ‘motivational’ and self-improvement books, old text books, or god-bothering literature – the popular lines here in East Africa. However, I did meet Amos, a delightful fellow, sitting on the pavement beside his display of old books. I was attracted to talk to him because he was reading his own books, unlike all the other salesmen, who swiped obsessively at phone screens, with their ten second attention spans – while surrounded by books… Amos is charming and intelligent, trying to eke a living from his book sales. He buys his books, imported in containers, from middlemen, the books rejected by charity shops and thrift stores in the Western world. Amos seems to have a better eye for books, and buys them a little more selectively. Then he sits and reads them. “I want my children to learn to love books!” he told me. I gave him a somewhat pertinent book to sell, one I just finished, about the addictive nature of devices. “As soon as I finish reading about the soldiers in the Gulf, I shall move to that! I learn so much from my books. When I sit in the matatu to my home, I take a book.” He must be the only passenger old fashioned enough not to be swiping a screen on his journey home. 

Francis is another man I met, of obvious integrity and knowledge. The central market is these days overwhelmed by touristic craft stalls, all selling slight variations on the same not very well made or imaginative souvenirs, presided over by the most irritating, intrusive stall holders. I spotted Francis’s shop from the lower floor: hung about with fine old pieces of creative value seldom seen any more. Those pieces were made from belief and superstition, and because few items could be bought and China was a far distant place beyond the ken of most Africans. His shop was hung with masks and carvings and interesting art works: the ‘antiques’ that are fast disappearing from African markets. I used to enjoy Accra craft market twenty years and more ago, finding some of my favourite possessions there. Francis has travelled much of Africa collecting his own merchandise, with a very good eye for quality. I bought my most expensive spoon – by a factor of many times. I saw it two days ago, and had a pleasant conversation with knowledgeable Francis. Today, I was greeted like an old friend and left to my own devices to browse his collection. He knew I liked the spoon from Gabon and we negotiated politely, agreeing on £42. My most extravagant spoon by far – but a centrepiece of my considerable collection. 


Amos and Francis are representative of many, many Kenyans: courteous, warm-hearted, curious and charming. I do like Kenya and Kenyans increasingly. It’s a country with hugely improved infrastructure and an increasing economy, and its filled with friendly, respectful people. Even the capital city is friendly, people greeting and helpful. In places it gets irritating and I did lose my rag with one persistent hassler. These are agents for tourist companies, constantly trying to attract me to a safari or tourist shop. They CAN be very annoying and sometimes rudeness is my only defence. The insistent nuisance was an older man who approached, asking questions and assuring me he wasn’t selling me anything – which, of course, he was. “Are you a racist?” he asked rudely, as if it was any business of his. “No, certainly not, but you ARE! You are hassling me because I have a white skin and you hope to profit by that. THAT’S racism! Go away!” But such irritation is rare, and I am largely left alone. I can generally walk the streets quietly and apparently safely. It’s been through astonishing changes, has Nairobi. 


At eight minutes past midnight, the giant 747 lumbered into the skies over Nairobi on its way north, leaving African soil once again – after my 31st visit I think, amounting to almost exactly four years spent on the continent that has shaped much of my thinking over the last 30 years.

This has been a good trip, varied, contented and with the added attraction that I can now visit friends as much as explore new places. And a certain familiarity with the cultures makes travelling much easier. I’ve ridden 7555 kilometres this year, bringing the total I have ridden on my little Mosquito, to a little less than 24,000 kilometres since I bought it. I’ve spent about £4700 in the past three months, £1000 on fares, about £800 on maintaining and using the bike, £270 on visas, £325 given away, and £835 on 63 nights accommodation, an average of less than £13 – considerably raised by the first night in Nairobi at a scandalous £47 and the last two at £27. 

Ethiopia was challenging but very rewarding; I’m happy I persevered after my uncharacteristic loss of confidence – caused by sheer exhaustion on the early part of the journey from Kitale to southern Ethiopia, and probably by the recent physical stress and strains of all my intrusive dental work, still less than three weeks old when I made that extremely long ride. I met more travellers this year than on past journeys, on which I met mainly local people. I’m sure I’ll hear from cheerful, chatterbox Alice again, from Addis; Nick from Lalibela and the Isle of Man; Daniel from Addis Ababa, now living in Zurich; and perhaps I will visit Frenchman, Gérald, who lives in rural France and extended a warm invitation when we met in Awassa. Then, of course, there are the East Africans who befriended me: Abdurohman in Ethiopia, Sam the mechanic in Marsabit, and my older friends, William, Precious and Alex, with all three of whom I have cemented warmer friendships each if the past three years. 

Lasting memories..? The ride over those highest mountains from Debre Tabor to Dessie, via Lalibela; the first taste of buna, after which coffee can never be the same again; the day on Lake Tana with Daniel and his mother, Aster, ending in that most memorable traditional music club; the harshness of riding both ways across the northern deserts of Kenya; laughter and relief with Alice the night I got my passport back from charming Tedla, MD of that hotel chain; Precious’s secret baby, Jonathan; the wonderful ride from Sipi home to Kitale, the best ride of all; and of course, the deep pleasure of sharing ‘beer o’clock’ with my old friend and African brother on the porch, and enjoying the warmth and comfort of extended family life amongst Adelight and all those cheerful respectful and cheeky young women. Nothing really surpasses that and my admiration – once again – for the African institution of the extended family, of which I am privileged to be accepted into several. The warmth and sociability of people on this continent, over which I am now flying once again, is a wonder that has enriched my life immeasurably.


And in three months, winter months back here in chill, wet Europe, as we fly through thick grey clouds above England, in three months I pulled on my waterproofs once, to ride through a brief shower around Nanyuki, below Mount Kenya.




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