DAY 26 – 31 WEDNESDAY/ MONDAY JANUARY 22/27, 2020. KITALE, KENYA
Apart from seemingly endless waiting – for my ankle and parts for my little motorbike, it appears that my role on this safari is bringing people together, introducing friends to one another. I introduced the Kitale family to Alex and Precious in Uganda. Then I introduced William to the Germans, Wanda and Jorg. Now I have introduced the Kitale family to Wanda and Jorg. Now they have introduced themselves to Alex and Precious. I seem to be the catalyst.
I carried my cheap phone about on Wednesday morning, expecting a message from my new German friends, met in the Kessup campsite/ guest house with their old Land Cruiser. We thought they might appear on Thursday. I’d drawn a map for them to find Rico and Adelight’s house. Mid-morning on Wednesday, they turned up at the gate unannounced – and were welcomed like old friends and became part of a happy family for two days. Everyone bonded well and we enjoyed a lot of warm conversation and contented times around the table, and both evenings round a camp fire and barbecue in the garden, the fire being an influence from Alex’s hospitality in Sipi last week. I reckon it might become a feature of warm evenings at home here in Kitale.
Wanda is in her mid-sixties, Jorg turning 60. They’ve travelled a great deal of Africa with that same obsession that hooked me since my first visit. They travel in their well fitted old car, sleeping and eating on board and making friends everywhere they go. Jorg and Rico are both mechanics and mad about old Land Cruisers. There’s been a lot of chatter round the subject! Meanwhile, Wanda is a warmhearted person who’s bonded with Adelight and the girls. They both engaged with little Maria cheerfully. Both evenings we made a fire and barbecued big meals. Adelight enjoys the opportunity to entertain. The girls uncomplainingly wash up and help prepare the meals, a vast wash up after the barbecues.
Meanwhile, my motorbike moves forward two steps and back one all the time. We’ve cleaned and fitted all the carburettor parts; put it back together and now we find that the small ‘key’ that fixes the magneto to the crank has failed. Rico spent much of a day making this part when we rebuilt the engine with the new cylinder and piston. It’s a tiny piece of very specific metal, about half the size of my little fingernail. Cor, Rico’s old Dutch friend, co-mechanic and neighbour, currently in Netherlands, but who took the Mosquito to bits with Rico, thinks they put it somewhere safely not to lose it! The old story. Rico doesn’t recollect that, but whoever is correct, it is lost. Now another one has to come from Nairobi…
So days pass. I left Harberton a month ago! Perhaps this has been the best for my ankle injury. I must just be philosophical and hope so – and exercise my new-found patience.
I received a message from Alex in Sipi after I texted him that Wanda and Jorg would look them up and that I had decided to travel to Uganda this year. I love the open way that Africans express themselves. Alex wrote:
‘Thanks papa! Seeing you very soon is so beautiful. We love you so much. I wish the two visit us! As we continue marketing, J you are the best! I know Precious will be happy to see you home. What can we be, where could we be! Ure our turning point. We are not ashamed to say that! Yours Alex’
I’m not sure if Wanda and Jorg stayed at Rock Gardens, but they went to greet the family. They sent photos.
Much to the girls’ horror, I announced that I would walk to town one afternoon. They are of the generation that does not even consider the concept of walking 6.5 kilometres, but waits for a boda-boda. What Wechiga in Ghana calls the ‘pick me there’ generation. My ankle benefitted from the exercise of walking in Kessup and here, with less muscular work, was swelling again. In fact, I walked a rather exhausting 10 or 11 kilometres, including a long slog about town searching for a petrol filter for my motorbike.
A couple of kilometres up the road, I was joined by Patrick. I love this friendly way in which people will introduce themselves and wish to walk with me. I’m seldom alone. Patrick lives with his grandmother down a dirt side road in a rural area and works when he can as a caddy at the Kitale Club. “But there aren’t many golfers… Sometimes I think I should go and try to find work at a bigger club, perhaps in Nairobi or Mombasa. But my grandmother is old. Some days I sit at the club all day with no players. But you know, unemployment is a problem here. I make enough to eat…” He was cheerful about his lot. Conversational and warmly welcoming. Maybe in his early 30s, a smiling face enhanced by one silver capped tooth. A short beard and an engaging manner, we walked the back road toward the Club gate, where he left me with many greetings, to go and sit and wait in hope of a few bob on the greens. “How will I contact with you?” Everyone wants a phone number. I gave him an email address instead. I know that these casual contacts will want to exchange endless friendly greetings once people have my number. “Oh, my phone is temporary!” I explain. Later I must extricate myself from Baraza, a boda-boda driver who carried me home the last half of the return journey, when I realised that my walk had become the shambling, exhausted, rather limping gait of an old man!
There’s a funeral company in town, ‘Delight Funerals’. They have an odd six-wheeled, glazed trailer that is towed behind a hearse – a shiny black minibus emblazoned with prayers and decorated with large purple bows. As I walked along the wide scrubby area beside the narrow, busy road into the town, I passed a number of well dressed people standing about by waiting cars. Wondering what was afoot, I looked around – and saw the Delight Funerals’ trailer having emergency welding done to the tow bar behind the purple-bowed hearse. Complete with coffin and flowers in the trailer! I was reminded of the way that a matatu never fills with fuel until it has collected its full compliment of passengers and their fares. Every minibus journey begins by pulling in to a petrol station. Hand to mouth is Africa’s normal economic mode.
On Saturday, again I took a long walk, this time through the fields and countryside that starts just beyond Rico and Adelight’s home, here on the edge of Kitale. I was a source of amazement for families in their rural houses. It’s not often a mzungu walks in those fields. Everyone is universally polite, even the choruses of calling children who gather wherever I wander. It’s a fallow time out in those fields, a tractor and plough turning the soil for a new season. But will that season be reliable this year? Now rainclouds gather and occasional showers fall, even here. Down to the east, towards Nairobi and Tanzania the rains still fall heavily, and floods inundate housing and farms. This is the dry season… There’s a a seventy year record plagues of locusts in parts of Kenya, the parts across which I rode last year, through the deserts of the north. It’s caused by the extraordinary changes in climate this year and will further devastate crops and threaten survival. Africa is the smallest creator of greenhouse gases but will bear the brunt of the greedy nations’ changes to our planet’s fragile conditions. It’s happening already, if you look. But little of the world’s media tells anything of this beleaguered continent. Poor Africa: out of sight, out of mind…
On Sunday, my third Nairobi parcel still had NOT arrived in Kitale. We had confirmation that it was sent on Saturday, but it did not arrive up here – or quite likely WAS in the collection office all the time but no one looked well enough. So another day passed with me twiddling my thumbs, Africa fashion. That day I walked the six and a half kilometres back from town.
It’s Monday morning now, and after many attempts to connect with the bus company office in town – Adelight finally resorting to sending a town boda-boda rider she knows – they confirm that the tiny part is now in. We’ll head out and collect it and then today Rico will reconstruct the bike and perhaps tomorrow I can set off on my 2020 African safari. On day 32… Four and a half weeks since I left home.
On Monday evening I am updating during heavy persistent rain, lying in bed with the comforting sound of the rain on the tin roof of Jonathan’s House, here in the Kitale compound. Comforting until I remember that I am here for a motorbike safari! And this in the dry season. It’s been raining, following a rolling thunderstorm, for a couple of hours. By good fortune we had a barbecue on the porch tonight.
My Mosquito flies again! The minuscule piece of metal, a third the size of your little fingernail, arrived on the morning bus from Nairobi. Rico duly fitted it in the engine and later I took a cheerful test ride. All is well and the little bike is healthy again. In fact, it’s probably the healthiest it has been since I owned it. After all, it has over £450 of new parts in it!
I’m trying to make a habit of a decent walk each day. I’ve walked the 6.5km to town, and the 6.5km back. I walked another 5 or 6km on Saturday and a further 5 or so today. This time I took the red dirt road that leaves the main road near the house. It goes to a distant village called Ndalu, about 15 kilometres to the east, a boda-boda man told me. I just plodded to the first village, being greeted by everyone and, on the way back, invited to coffee in Ben’s house, a rambling, slightly ill-kempt compound of earth buildings. His wife, Milka, made me a mug of very sweet, thin Somalian coffee in a saucepan over the gas bottle. Ben likes visitors, he insisted. A somewhat beer-bellied man in his late fifties, he worked for a Swiss charity encouraging sanitation in villages around the small town of Turbo, fifty miles away, a town memorable to me for the worst road in East Africa. The potholes, filled with dust, were feet deep and unavoidable, even on my motorbike.
Ben ‘decided to leave’ his employment – which probably means the project, or his contract with it, ended. He returned to ‘carry on his own business’, usually Africa-speak for not doing much and making ends meet by selling the milk from his cows and cultivating his shamba. “I plan to build a decent house across the road on my farm! Then you won’t have to rent a place to stay. You can come and stay with Ben!” This to a complete stranger ten minutes before. It’s always very engaging, life in rural Africa. He was very proud of his time as a local councillor and pleased to name-drop some of his ‘very good friends’, the local MPs and officials. A kindly man, we sat in his dark, earth-walled living room, the usual collection of old settees covered in cloths and blankets, a small TV on the common multi-doored sideboard. A small round woman, his mother, is 90, he told me, as she bustled in with polite greetings. “You should watch her work! I leave her part of my farm for her vegetables. She says it keeps her young!”
Now that my piki-piki is finally complete, mended and running perhaps as never before, the weather is dreadful! In the evening the rain started in earnest, with lightning rolling about behind heavy clouds. This is forecast for several days. This in the ‘dry’ season.
Tomorrow I shall return to Kessup for a test ride. I don’t want to go to Uganda (where it’s also raining) until I am sure of my wheels. Kessup’s a convenient distance and I know I am assured of a warm welcome.
DAYS 32/33 TUESDAY/WEDNESDAY JANUARY 28/29th, 2020. KESSUP, KENYA
Back to Kessup for a shake down ride with my newly improved Mosquito. At last it is running very well, thanks to Rico’s expertise. It’s probably more reliable than it’s been since I bought it four years ago. Today it ran well without any hesitation. All the new parts were worthwhile.
I always know I’ll be accorded a warm welcome here at the Lelin Campsite and Guest House. The staff know me well now, and William makes sure his guest is ‘com-for-tible’ every visit, bargaining the prices down for a regular customer.
The weather, though, leaves a lot to be desired, when compared with my usual hot African sunshine. I arrived dry but this evening it is raining steadily once again. It’s also cold. Well, not cold by northern European standards for January, but probably no more than 20 or 21 degrees, with a keen wind, that usually dies down after sunset. This evening, in our outdoor sun shelter, we needed a charcoal brazier beneath the table and a light blanket around my shoulders as we ate supper. Riding up towards Iten, I hd to stop to don my waterproof jacket against the high altitude chill, on top of a tee shirt, light jersey, fleece jerkin and riding jacket!
This is a good ride for a test of my machine. Just 125 kilometres (75 miles) on quiet roads. Now it’s 8.00 and I am already in bed, with the susurration of rain on the roof and the vast cleft in the earth below my windows deadly silent except for the whisper of the rain.
The reason I am very diligent about keeping covered up on my motorbike – gloves on, jacket zipped, skin covered – is flying insects, with which I sometimes intercept painfully. Riding out of Kitale into the country, I collided with a wild bee of some sort. It stung me on my throat. I now have a large and very itchy wattle like a turkey. One day, years ago in Zimbabwe, a bee was scooped up in my sleeve and stung me on the forearm, which swelled dramatically to fill my jacket. A few days later, I rode into a swarm of similar bees. I stopped quickly to brush perhaps 40 or more bees from my jacket front – thankfully well zipped despite the extreme heat. That lot could have killed me! The guest house manager just passed (I’m writing as I await my breakfast) and asked after my night. I complained of the very irritable lump under my chin.
“Oh! So you need antibiotic..?” So began one of my African rants about the misuse of the wonder drug of my lifetime, prescribed by unqualified salespeople masquerading as ‘pharmacists’, issuing what would elsewhere be prescription drugs. What I actually need is to find an old woman who still knows which leaves to boil up to make an effective antihistamine drug. Maybe William and I will find one on our walk today down in the – now rather muddy – village paths. Knowledge being fast forgotten as people flock to the panacea of ‘modern’ medicine.
The ‘whisper of rain’ about which I wrote last night, continued for hours, becoming a drumming of rain, heavy powerful rain. Thunder rolled across the great valley and this morning the nearby river that tumbles down from the high cliffs is roaring. This year is the first time I ever heard or saw it do more than trickle. We are in the height of the dry season. How long will it take for the climate change deniers to face facts? DRY season Africa with torrential rain?
“We’ve never known it to rain like this in January,” says everyone, as the rain torrents down in the evening after a rather disgustingly humid day. The rain thunders on my roof again tonight and thick fog disguises the entire gardens of the guest house. It’s just horrible.
Today, Wednesday, William and I made our usual activity of walking the village paths and tracks, meeting people, invited into shambas and compounds, chatting with these country people amongst their green farms. The great valley steamed below us, greener than normal. We drank fibrous, sour bulsa, the local maize beer, from tin mugs, sitting on a grassy slope above Caro’s earth and zinc houses, surrounded by onion fields and avocado trees. We walked in Kewapsoss this time, the village area to the immediate north of Kessup on the plateau. It’s a fertile part of the plateau, but William says it’s poor because transport to market and distance from the mountain water makes for logistical problems. But it’s a handsome area for a mzungu tourist to explore, green, cultivated and filled with mature trees. A pleasant walk.
William has malaria today, so we walked via a small village dispensary where he could get free treatment – a pin prick blood test and a course of chloroquine tablets for the next three days. The clinic was oddly sited on a sharp hilltop, a simple place with a nurse on duty and half a dozen patients waiting on benches in the lobby, amused to be joined for a while by a mzungu. Schoolchildren chorus at me and William says, “They never saw a mzungu before! Only perhaps in pictures!” What fun it is to give so much pleasure just by walking around these rural areas smiling and shaking hands!
But, oh dear, the rain pounding on my roof does rather depress me. I come to Africa to get away from gloom and wet. Making a piki-piki safari in rain, on mud roads, isn’t much fun. If this weather continues, I think I have to seriously consider my plans. And at present there’s no sign that it will not continue. “They say we will have a lot of rain in March,” says William as we walk…
It’s the dry season.
DAY 34 THURSDAY JANUARY 30th, 2020. KAPTAGAT, KENYA
Once again I am sitting by a roaring log fire in my room in the faded old colonial Kaptagat Hotel, a place of once smart bungalows ranged round a fine mature garden. A garden so loved of the British of former times. Kaptagat is high, over 2000 metres, and a fire is a pleasure up here. A fire of fragrant local cedar and pine trees. The fire is one of the few attributes of this old place, without running water and with antique candlewick bedspreads, vintage about 1950. My room is huge but the curtains also colonial vintage, the fireplace a confection of red bricks that might have been fashionable in a mock Tudor semi, back in British suburbia. But I have a fondness for the place, down its red mud road amongst the tall trees, back from the main road. It’s fun.
After a night of constant heavy rain, thundering on the roof of my Kessup room, rain such as no one has witnessed here in January before, a hundred waterfalls cascaded over the lip of the high cliffs at the top of the Great Rift escarpment, tumbling and foaming into the deep Kerio Valley a vertical mile below. This usually desert valley winked and shone with lakes and rivers running through what’s normally brown scrubland when I am here.
As I twist and wind down the great valley on a good road, the heat increases, even today after the night’s rain. It’s humid now, instead of the parched burned quality I know. Foggy clouds hang in the air above and roll and tumble over the cliff edges far far above. The scenery is green this year, enhanced by the gashes and streaks of falling water cutting through the dense growth.
Almost at the lowest point of the valley, where by now the trickle of the Kerio River must be a roaring torrent, I turn onto a trail I love. I found it a few journeys ago and make an excuse to go that way every visit now. It’s 26 lovely miles, climbing the apparently impossible terrain straight up into the clouds. For the first ten miles or so, it’s a sandy track through the bush country of the valley bottom, passing through a few small remote villages, where it’s difficult to imagine how anyone scratches a living from the unpromising terrain. I was forced to splash and wallow through tumbling rivers and streams where I have only seen dry dusty fords. At last I pass the ragged settlement of Kimwarer and its fluorspar mines, now redundant from reduced market, I am told later as I chat with men at the top of my ride. There’s a sentry on duty at a barrier, ostensibly for the security of the mine. He’s cheerful, doubtless I gladden a boring day for him. And now the rocky track begins to rise, the view becoming splendid as I climb, looking back across the huge valley and steeply up at the cloud-wreathed cliffs above. It’s incredible that a road actually attempts to clamber through such rocks and forest. It’s impossible to see how it gets up there, my neck craning at the near-vertical rock faces above. This rain-swept year there are many scars from recent rock falls, and banks of mud and rock are bulldozed to the sides of the trail. In a dramatic series of twists and hairpins, somehow the road battles its way through the improbable topography and eventually emerges into a small, busy village of shacks and booths, boda-bodas and the customary congregations of aimless men and busy women that comprise these scattered trading posts along the tar roads.
“Where can I get chai?” I call to the boggling boda-boda riders, astonished to see this old daddy appear from the depths on his ‘big’ bike. They direct me to one of the tin shacks nearby. Everyone is happy to greet me, full of questions and admiration for my ‘strong’ piki-piki – the smallest one I ever owned.
I enter the tin ‘hotel’ to a chorus of greetings and confusion of handshakes. Chairs are pulled forward. Smiles everywhere. I love this activity. It’s why I come. Soon I am sitting with three men at a plastic covered low table, a brown china mug filled to the brim – always to the absolute limit, so that I scald my fingers and spill the tea on the table – engaged in conversation, answering questions, enjoying the warmth of these happy people. There’s not a moment of threat or uncertainty, just welcome and generous warmth. I don’t even pay for my own tea! The gentleman sitting next to me with his plate of beans and chapati includes my tea in his payment before shaking my hand and continuing his journey. I am left to chat with Patrick, Kipkuru and smiling Kipsoisoi. We talk of politics and politicians and they want to know why Britain is leaving the EU tomorrow. Sadly, I cannot give a single good reason for that, only the stupidity and hubris of my shameful, arrogant country, many of whose inhabitants still think that Kenya is their empire and should feel grateful for our patronage!
It’s the company I stop for, more than the over-sweet, milky tea. If I don’t pause on my journeys they become just a series of great views, junctions and petrol stations. Kipkuru is the server in his corrugated ‘hotel’. The food looks sustaining and hot, served on plastic plates. There’s some smashed up goat, tasty looking brown beans, chopped chapati and some sort of pasties that look a bit anaemic. Were I hungry at lunchtime, I wouldn’t mind a dish of beans and chapati. There’s sawdust all over the rough boards of the floor, posters and calendars on the walls, that are covered in printed vinyl. Someone, maybe Kipkuru, has tried to make the place look smart, despite the obvious poverty of the situation. He walks through his low-roofed shack with a huge aluminium kettle of mixed tea, refilling my mug as he passes. The high mountain light enters through the door and holes in the tin walls and a single lightbulb adds some shadows. People are heavily dressed up here. It’s chilly in Nyaru. When I leave, I add my waterproof jacket to my warm clothing to protect my chest from the cold highland air.
As I write tonight, beside my flaming, aromatic fire, the rain starts again. I’ve pulled the Mosquito onto the bungalow porch tonight. It’s chilly and very dark, the clouds thick and any reflected light negligible. Ellen, the woman who looks after the rooms here, greeted me with a big hug like an old friend and brought two enormous logs for my fire. I sleep well here, a big bed and blanket beneath the candlewick, the embers of my fire – if these big logs ever burn down – filling the room with warmth and a comforting red glow. I’ll finish my Tusker and sleep.
DAY 35 FRIDAY JANUARY 31st, 2020. KITALE, KENYA
Just two years ago I rode the red dusty track that constituted the road from Iten to Kapenguria, a journey of about 60 miles. The latter third had been tarred into a magnificent twisting road through the high mountains, later with enormous vistas down towards the northern deserts of Kenya. I rode it again today. It’s smooth tar all the way. Much less attractive for an ‘adventure’ biker, of course, but doubtless welcomed by the inhabitants of the lovely Cherangani Mountains.
The only problem with the old hotel at Kaptagat, ignoring the fact that there’s no running water or lavatory seat, and the old fashioned quality of the fittings (that I find oddly quaint), is the bar. It’s a large, dark cavern of a room with a fireplace in which you could park the average car. Those aren’t its problems. They are the customers. It attracts many local men, slowly killing themselves and probably ruining their families by imbibing unwise quantities of cheap local spirits. I have to take my beer to my room. I was shocked as I walked into the garden to await my breakfast. A group of five men were already noisy and drunk, carrying two bottles of the stronger lager each. One man had finished a 33cl bottle of KK – harsh Kenya Kane rum (also called Kill me Kwik). It was 9.10 in the morning. I bet their wives were working hard, and their children suffering privations. The sadness of Africa: booze and lack of control from stupid men. Without women, Africa would grind to a halt. Two women swept an acre of grass clear of fallen leaves with small hand-brooms nearby. Inured to their lack of power on this continent and accustomed to their inferior social status – as their idiot menfolk drink themselves into early graves. I’d say ‘good riddance’, but they impoverish their families on the way down. Alcohol, the weakness of Africa.
After a breakfast of eggs and pancakes and an black, wrinkled sausage that might have been interred with an Egyptian pharaoh, I was on my way, using the new roads that have been spreading across the region for the past few years. I made my way back, across country, to Iten, the town above Kessup. Wikipedia tells me the name comes from a corruption of Hill Ten, as the early colonial explorer, Thompson, climbed and counted the various small free-standing peaks along the edge of the Rift Valley below the town.
Then it was off on the new highway to Kapenguria, a delightful ride through the expansive Cherangani Hills. The road climbs high. Iten itself is at 7900 feet (2400 metres) and the highway clambers considerably higher into the chilly dampness of the highlands. The day remained just about dry, not the usual sunny smiling scenery to which I am used at all. Up at the heights I was in cold cloud, pressed to wearing all my layers to keep warm. It’s a fine ride.
Home again to Kitale. I’ve spent a lot of time here this year, with my East African family. First the delays of getting the bike fettled, and now the heavy rains. Once again, tonight the rain cascades on my roof in a noisy tattoo. There’s really nowhere to go on a piki-piki, since I don’t have to, in such cold wetness.
There is hope that next week the weather will improve, but William informs me that the long term forecast for March is for plenty of rain. I rode home considering my next moves. For some time I’ve wondered about making this a two-centre trip by taking a diversion to South Africa. By chance, an email landed when I got home to internet connection, from Kenya Airways, with special deal of flight reductions to a ‘valued customer’. The flight I checked last week is now 20% cheaper. So I’ll fly to Johannesburg at the end of the month and spend a bit over three weeks in the south, enabling me to take a much longed for trip to Lesotho. Whether I’ll be able to arrange a motorbike remains to be seen.
As I upload this journal, soon after lunch on Saturday, the heavens have opened once again. It seldom rains lightly in Africa. As with every climatic force, Africa goes for the dramatic…