Before the journey begins, a brief diversion.
The complete unknown on this trip is my ability to overcome, or cope with, my injured leg. For those who don’t know, I ruptured my Achille’s tendon on September 13th. A ‘sports’ injury: playing rounders on a beach on the Isle of Mull in Wellies! Plaster cast for two weeks, and Star Trooper plastic support boot for a further seven weeks, day and night. I’ve been out of the boot for less than six weeks, and my right ankle is still very weak, with recovery time ‘from three to six MONTHS’ from removal of the boot… So I have no idea how this trip will be compromised by that injury. Only time will tell. As it is, my foot swells through the day and feels weak and rather wobbly. I am not so worried about riding my motorbike – for I will be wearing big bike boots, with as much support as the orthopaedic boot. I am more concerned how I will cope walking on uneven surfaces off the bike.
So how this trip will play out, I have no idea. Only time will tell. At present my foot swells and the ankle is weak and sore.
DAY 1. SATURDAY DECEMBER 28th 2019. UTRECHT. NETHERLANDS
It’s such a joy to keep in touch with old friends. Especially old friends with whom I shared the best weeks of my life. Tonight I am with Marti in Utrecht, one of my three companions from that life-changing first crossing of the Sahara, back in 1987. On Monday, I will be with Rico, another of our foursome of desert adventurers.
For those weeks really did change my life; Rico’s too: our first experience of the continent of Africa, that has become such an important influence in our lives. The continent that I am approaching for another footloose safari until late March.
It’s always a bonus when I can book my flights through Amsterdam to give me a night’s stop-over to visit Marti and his wife Marta and three delightful daughters. This is a brief stay, arriving mid-evening and flying out again at noon tomorrow. Kindly facilitated by Marti driving to and from Schipol airport for me.
These trips have become a habit! This is the eighth winter running that I have got out of Britain’s drear, damp darkness. It’s a relief to be on my way, the lists either complete or abandoned now. Different concerns ahead. Different pleasures too.
Especially when it means temporary divorce from my increasingly populist ‘culture’ as it races to the bottom, vulgarity legitimised. No less than FIVE books on the WH Smith ‘best sellers’ shelf at the airport contained the coyly asterisked word f**k n their titles. On the flight to Amsterdam, children fought over their iPads and were abused by irritated parents in similar vocabulary. Sometimes I feel prudish to be offended by the lack of imagination that causes this aggressive offensiveness.
Roll on Africa and the ‘dodgy places’ that so many people imagine I visit. Try Bristol Airport if you want dodgy places at New Year holiday time. An ugly exposure of the underbelly of British – or Brutish – ‘culture’. Thankfully no hen or stag parties off to vomit in European capitals today. They probably went yesterday. In past months of multiple dentistry visits I have come to know how the Poles, a quite conservative nation, look upon many British visitors…
DAY 2. SUNDAY DECEMBER 29TH 2019. NAIROBI. KENYA
My flight to Nairobi and back is the cheapest of my life. Shortly after my return from Kenya last March, I was asked to go to South Africa to consult on a new museum to be built in the Drakensburg Mountains, the same range that hold up my world favourite, Lesotho. My friend Mike is project manager and wanted my take on the plans so far. “We can’t afford to pay you any fees, this is South Africa! But we’ll pay all your expenses if you’d like to come out for a week’s holiday with Yvonne and I?” Well, that was good enough for me! I’d see my old friends. I booked flights to Durban and set off ten days after I’d flown north from Nairobi.
My flight in early April was delayed out of Bristol when the rear door of the aircraft wouldn’t close properly. At last we left for Amsterdam, four hours late. Schipol airport was in chaos, with strong gales and a runway closed for maintenance. I waited most of the afternoon – happily in the lounge – to be rebooked on flights the next day and was then ferried to a decent KLM hotel for the night. Meanwhile, I had a hotel booking at the airport hotel in Johannesburg as I was to arrive late in the evening and leave for the final flight to Durban in the morning. Of course, I had to book that for the next night too. When I got home, I emailed KLM asking if they would refund the £85 for my no-show hotel reservation. You may imagine my delight when I received a voucher, valid for 12 months, for £689! An EU law that makes provision for flights delayed beyond a certain limit. (‘Bollocks to Brexit’ – public vulgarity that I consider somewhat more justified than ‘f**k’ book titles!).
My flights to Nairobi and back have cost me £1.46! And remember, Mike’s project had paid for that flight to South Africa. In effect, I got fees after all.
In the light of that bargain, I spent a few air miles on an ideal seat: an exit row where I can put my damaged foot up on the emergency slide container on the inside of the aircraft door. I also spent £55 on a hotel opposite the small airfield from which I depart for Kitale tomorrow morning.
So here I find myself in a rather smart hotel three minutes from the airfield. I chuckled to see how my travels have sometimes changed, for my taxi, laboriously haggled for from the main international airport, pulled into a glittering portico beside marble steps, potted palm trees and uniformed concierges to open my door, a sprawling marble tiled lobby and a reception desk thirty feet long. I’ve a decent room on the first floor and am about to sleep under a sheet and blanket with the windows open to the pleasant night. This hotel is owned, my charming taxi driver, George, told me, by the vice president of the country himself, doubtless laundering a few of the corrupt millions these crooks manoeuvre out of the nation’s economy. And thereby hangs a small disappointment tonight – when I discovered that Kenya has reprinted its banknotes in a sudden attempt to stamp out the trade in illegal money, rendering my £70 kept since March, as useless as scrap paper! Oh, the joys of African travel. Oh well, if it cost some of the rogues their Swiss pensions, all well and good.
The Alps and Dolomites in a crystal clear sky were wondrous as we flew south at 35,000 feet at 621mph in a brand new aircraft, a 787-10 Dreamliner, of which KLM took delivery on December 22nd, the cabin attendant told me. After several hundred flights, there’s still some magic that enchants. Crumpled snow and shadows, the glare of the high altitudes, clouds hanging in some of the deep shadowed valleys, the dazzling brilliance of the searchlight of the sun above a gloriously designed wing. A short while later, a wonderful sunset as we flew above the African continent that’s been so much part of my life these past three decades.
And now, shortly after midnight, I shall sleep once again on African soil.
DAY 3. MONDAY DECEMBER 30TH 2019. KITALE. KENYA
Travel frustrations, of which there can be many in Africa, are made insignificant by the smiles of Kenyans. On arrival at the small airport to check in, it transpired that the Kitale travel agent had booked me on a flight TO Nairobi, not the one FROM Nairobi to Kitale. So the plane had gone and I was stranded in Nairobi. I know too well that there’s no point in frustration and irritation. The only option is to smile and find a solution. A long walk to another airline office found me a flight to Eldoret in the mid afternoon.
Everyone was sympathetic and cheerful. It was difficult not to join in and smile. Everyone greets, shakes hands, welcomes and expresses such goodwill. Life in Africa is made easy by this interaction. It’s largely this attitude that brings me back year after year. Counter clerks, Jane and Sheila, accompanied me about their offices, organised a ride for me and collected my bag from the first airline half a mile across the airfield, looked after me and made my day bright. All it takes from me is reciprocal smiles.
So I landed in Eldoret, forty five or so miles from Kitale at almost five in the afternoon, not in time for breakfast, as planned. Adelight meanwhile had arranged a ride for me in a car of the new charter car service to bring me a couple of hours from airport to home, and the warmest of welcomes from this, my Kenyan family, as darkness gathered in the mild evening. It’s a delight to be back amongst my good friends, treated like a brother and uncle and companion. It hardly feels as if I left.
Maybe smiles and relaxed discussion will allow me to change my flight payment to my return instead. One thing I do know is that argument will get me nowhere!
DAY 4. TUESDAY DECEMBER 31st 2019. KITALE. KENYA
Another year ends in Africa. When I asked what were our plans for the last evening of 2019 there was a slight embarrassed pause. It appeared it depended on me. This has been a lean year in the household, with Rico having almost no contracts as the main wage earner. It’s expensive, caring for all these young women – school fees, food, subsistence and all. They are all uncomplaining and accustomed to privation. So Christmas has been a low key family gathering.
We all saw in the year together tonight at the old Kitale Club, that provides a huge buffet and disco in marquees on the edge of the golf greens. Adelight, Rico, Scovia, Marion, Bo, Shamilla and little Maria. The girls enjoy this night out, celebrating with an uncommon glass of wine and meeting their friends. It’s a busy night, and while Rico and I may despise the raucous disco, it’s a night for them. And I am happy to share my time with these lovely young people. Happy indeed.
In Totnes it’s 7 degrees, cloudy and 50% chance of rain. In Kitale as I write this morning it’s a bright sunny 25 degrees to start 2020.
DAYS 5-8. SATURDAY JANUARY 4th 2020. KITALE. KENYA
And now four more days have passed. Pleasantly but unremarkably, enjoying the calm life of this true family. Some of the girls are related in the most tenuous ways, but together they accept and form a close family unit, loving, sharing and content. They share out household duties with no discord. They sweep and clean, do vast family washes in buckets in the garden, care for little Maria, wash up from extended meals and share the cooking and preparation with Adelight. They do it all with a goodwill I seldom see in Western children. They all choose to sleep together in one somewhat chaotic room on two large beds, mixing and matching their wardrobe and belongings. The extended family is such an admirably adaptable unit. It accepts white uncles with the same facility as various visitors.
The days pass quietly. I am pacing myself for these first weeks. My ankle grows daily stronger and the propensity to swell reduces. I do my exercises in the hope of being able to soon ride my piki-piki once again. At present that resides in Rico’s big garage, lifted on a steel box as he prepares the new piston and cylinder that I carried with me. I’m happy for his attention to my wheels. They have been bodged, using Chinese parts and bits and pieces; worked on by multiple mechanics – probably better than many, but without the knowledge and expertise of Rico’s long experience and orderly European ways. After his ministrations I will feel more confident in my little motorbike than I have for the past three years. Some weeks ago he sent me a list of parts to source, which I procured online from Devon, original parts that will be so much more reliable than the assorted Chinese spares of the various African mechanics.
The sun shines down. We eat. We converse. Adelight is happy to have her Scrabble partner once again. We shop – an experience that I quite enjoy with Adelight. One I hate and despise at home. How odd that is! With Adelight it has an element of novelty – and she knows half Kitale, which makes it a congenial exercise with plenty of people-watching for me. Meanwhile, we tinker with the motorbike and I sleep and dream deeply in my cool ‘Jonathan’s House’ out in the garden beneath the avocado tree. Life is relaxed and I am sure that with this calm, stress-free atmosphere my foot will be restored quite soon. The warmth and sun help, and so does wearing only flip-flop sandals. As soon as I put on my walking shoes and socks, my foot swells.
DAY 12. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 8TH 2019. KITALE, KENYA
You can see that I am forced to take the beginning of this journey a little slower and more relaxedly than my usual energetic fashion. I am now just eight weeks into the recovery period – that may take six months before normal use of my ruptured Achille’s. It’s been a time to enjoy the family. It’s very easy, and my enforced calm is easier for having an unarguable reason.
Yesterday, after rather more swelling than usual on Monday, (perhaps caused by a slight localised trauma when I stepped awkwardly on a stone in the morning) I asked Adelight to take me to consult a doctor. I just needed to ask someone who might know, whether the edema was a natural result of the recovery and why, despite the tendon now having obviously healed, I have a lot of soreness beneath my ankle. We went to the Galilee Health Centre on the edge of town. There, said Adelight who knows just about everyone in Kitale, was the senior doctor of the region. The health centre is modern, single storey, of the usual style, including wooden doors that have warped in the Kitale climate, never to fit their frames again. The customary whispering receptionist took my details. I wonder why it is considered a mark of respect to murmur in a show of privacy? Thankfully, the doctor, after waiting an hour, was a cheerful, forthright man, large and blunt.
“On September 13th, I ruptured my Achille’s and I still get plenty of swelling and I wanted to ask if that is to be expected?”
“You can walk,” observed Dr Kassembeli correctly. “At you age you should be happy it is mending!”
“But I don’t feel that old!” Of course, in Africa septuagenarians are a small portion of the populous. Seventy is considered ‘old’.
“Ah, so you are 30 but with an extra 40 years’ experience!”
Well, as I walked to town, where Adelight was doing one of her endless shops, a mile or so away, in the warm sun, I chuckled at the doctor’s straightforwardness. There’s no place for vanity in Africa. He prescribed an ointment that will help the edema and packed me off. Twenty four more people waited outside his ill-fitting door as I scraped it closed across the terrazzo floor tiles.
The consultation cost £11.70 and the ointment a further £8.25. “It’d better be good!” I exclaimed to the pharmacist, surprised at the cost of a tube of gunk. Made in Italy, with precious little of the high cost benefitting any African economies.
As of this afternoon, my blue Mosquito almost runs again. Rico, the best engineer of my acquaintance, especially in Africa where one must create any missing parts, has rebuilt the engine. I brought with me a new cylinder, piston, rings, timing chain and various required parts. At 4.45 the engine fired back to life, sounding better than for many a kilometre. It remains for me to test ride, but a passing shower has delayed my first motorbike ride since September 5th until tomorrow.
For now, I enjoy the warmth and love of this true ‘family’.
DAY 14. FRIDAY JANUARY 10TH 2019. KITALE, KENYA
Fourteen days already. I haven’t stirred much from the bosom of the family. It’s interesting how the past four months have taught me some patience – not normally one of my qualities! Being ‘grounded’ for so many weeks, almost literally anchored to the spot (the spot being Rock Cottage, Harberton) by a weighty orthopaedic boot gave me no choice but to settle back and for once let nature take its course. It seems finally to be doing so. Yesterday afternoon I rode the little blue Mosquito, my small Suzuki DR 200cc motorbike, now veteran of three long journeys, for the first time. Rico completed the restoration works with about half a new engine. I bought oil and at last we were able to start the engine and for me to take a test ride. Despite attempting to kick start – using my injured leg – and doing plenty of exercises through the day, the swelling last night was decreasing. Maybe the Kitale doctor’s expensive ointment does help after all.
Before I can set off on the Mosquito I need to procure a new carburettor diaphragm. Such things can only be found in Nairobi, where the Suzuki dealer proudly claims to have been representing the company since 1959 and in the business of motorcycles since 1921. I am, however, shocked to find that it’s going to cost £116! More than the cost of half a new engine that I brought with me. Huh. Running a motorbike is something of a luxury way to travel. Worth it for those who are obsessed by independence and the ability to go where the whim takes us though.
Tomorrow we will all go – in Rico’s Pajero 4X4 – on my favourite road in East Africa, to Sipi, Uganda for a few days to visit my other family in the region. It’ll be something of an adventure for the girls – Scovia and Marion – who haven’t been over the border before.
On our return I shall begin my 2020 safari.