EAST AFRICA 2020 – FIVE

I’VE BEEN AWAY FROM INTERNET CONNECTION FOR TEN DAYS OR MORE, SO THERE WILL BE TWO JOURNALS TO CATCH UP ON! Next one tomorrow…

My Ugandan family

DAY 37. SUNDAY 2nd FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

My memory of East Africa this year will be of red mud and warm welcomes. An awkward combination for a biker on safari. I’ve ridden back to Sipi to joyous excitement from my Uganda family. “Precious wasn’t able to sleep when she heard,” laughs Alex happily as we sit by a fire of old timber. “She was afraid for your ride in the mud! She thought it would be HARD!” Precious seems to find my age a matter for concern. I suppose that so few Ugandans even reach 70 that her elderly mzungu is a bit of a wonder. She fell on her knees to thank me and god in about equal measure and tell me that no Ugandan parent ever treats their children as I treat her and her family. Not surprising if you’ve seven, or nine, or fifteen, or twenty children in this country of such shocking statistics: 50% under the age of 15, the fastest growing population in the world, the ‘youngest’ country in the world, children everywhere I look. Some of this generous continent’s friendliest people heading towards a total planetary ecological disaster. Everyone’s ambition? More children (a gift from god) and more cattle (status). Mention any worry about the planet and the common answer is, “We’ll pray…” Hmmm.

With all the rain and slippery mud around, and more rain forecast, it was prudent to take the long way to Sipi, not the rough track through Suam border about which Precious was worrying, although it’s less than two thirds the distance. I knew there’d be mud and difficulties that way. The other route takes me on tar roads round three sides of Mount Elgon. About twelve o’clock back to nine o’clock on the map, instead of twelve to nine anti-clockwise. I set off south from Kitale, turning off the main road onto a tarred short cut that takes me past Adelight’s mother’s house, an hour from Kitale, where I was commissioned to deliver a couple of kilos of milk powder to Adelight’s junior brother, Tito, waiting for me at the roadside. That done, I carried on towards the Uganda border, a huge, tedious crossing that carries all the commercial traffic from the ports of Kenya up to the interior of the continent, Uganda and Rwanda and even Congo.

I rolled along, the rain clouds always just far enough away that I kept largely dry. I bowled through rural Chwele, enjoying a tar road. Soon I expected to turn right at a major junction onto the main east-west highway before riding west to the border. Imagine then my surprise to approach a broken gate across the road and a sign, ‘stop for transit’. I had reached Lwakhakha, a remote border crossing I once used a few years ago, after a troublesome journey on footpaths so remote that I couldn’t believe I was on an international route! Now the road has been tarred all the way and somewhere I had taken a wrong turn. I was happy to save myself a number of miles and the big, tediously busy border post. But I remember this border for difficult bureaucracy – probably in search of bribes. So, after a long process, I was told that the ‘law’ allowed me only 14 days in Uganda with my motorbike. I’ve travelled in and out of the country on several occasions and every time been granted 30 days. Finally, I had to accept that I have fourteen days for my tour of the north. Actually, I didn’t want much more – and wasn’t paying a bribe on principle.

The addition of mud and a layer of dried streaky stains to everything along the road doesn’t do much for the attractiveness of the rural villages through which I pass. The crude structures that form most of the habitations en route aren’t beautiful on a sunny day. They’re particularly gloomy and repulsive in present conditions. Half finished, with construction stopping as soon as the building is useable, all decoration then halted, they are rough and ugly. And in this astonishingly populous country, they line most of the main roads. Now in Sipi, red mud is everywhere – on the slippery pathways and tracks, around all the houses, trodden across the floor of ‘Jonathan’s House’ – the original round room of Alex’s Rock Gardens guest house – and ingrained on all the people. Delightful Precious’s once-white skirt, as I write this morning, is patchy brown and stained to grubbiness. She’s two mud-covered toddlers clambering over her all day long. The two children are filthy, like every one of their compatriots just now. It’s a filthy life in Africa when it rains! It’s an absolute wonder that Precious gets the sheets so sparklingly white that they could be laid on a bed in the best Kampala international hotel! How she’s done that I have no idea.

Precious has a great skill in decorating the simple rooms

From the border on the Ugandan side, the road will be some time before completion. I had to struggle and slip through five kilometres of thick, greasy mud of the road building project before finding packed earth and eventually tar again, to bring me to the hectic regional town of Mbale, a most unappealing place with more boda-boda motorbikes swarming the streets like ants than any other town in Africa, except perhaps the crazy, congested capital, Kampala – a scene that must be seen to be believed. And once seen, is best forgotten and avoided if possible! Today, Sunday, is the last day of the school holidays and all of Uganda appeared to be shopping in Mbale. The town was packed with pedestrians and wayward boda-bodas, weaving through broken streets, competing with badly driven cars. Uganda has arguably the worst drivers in Africa. And as for boda-bodas, they are dangerous in the extreme, competing for business – an overload of three passengers here and vast load there – on their 100cc Chinese motorbikes. No one has any training or road sense. Many die. I must ride with eyes like a hawk. Sadly, few others of my two wheeled friends do the same. I watched an accident happen as I rode through Mbale, actually anticipating the collision. Two riders rode along looking at the back of the car close in front of them. As I (who looks ahead) had the thought, ‘that car in front will stop in about 15 seconds’, and held back, the driver stopped and both motorbikes piled into the back of it, tumbled in a heap in the road, with the rear decorative bumper of the car hanging drunkenly. I rode around the whole mess, watching with wry amusement as the well-dressed Haji moslem driver pulled over to begin what I expect was a long harangue with two shamefaced boda-boda riders, now picking themselves up from the road as hundreds more weaved around the heap! I was happy to leave Mbale behind, as I’ve always been when using that road.

The temperature drops several degrees as I ride up the escarpment towards Sipi, several hundred metres above the valley. It’s a steep, winding climb onto the wooded hills, bananas and coffee everywhere, tall eucalyptus towering above the rocky precipices. The final trail to Rock Gardens is the worst track of all, heavy sticky clay on which to slither the final kilometre, my tyre tread filling to provide a greasy slick.

Effervescent Precious

The last two hundred yards, and Precious has been listening for the engine. She comes running, arms waving, exclamations rushing, to hug me as I reach the slowly progressing resort. Some day, these two delightful, hard working, diligent young people will be independent. Alex dreams of his new hotel. If anyone can achieve their dreams, it will be these two. It won’t take much, that’s the saddest thing. Telling Alex of the (surprise) corporation tax bill I just paid (I’d forgotten to pay the last two years, my accountant emailed me to tell me! Huh!), he exclaimed, “Just think what that money could do here!” It could have set up this young family for life, a life independent of crooked, exploitative employers, a chance to build their dreams into reality and become a charming place to stay for Ugandans and visitors alike. I’d so much rather my tax pounds supported people with dreams than completely useless nuclear submarines that can never be used, pointless Brexit negotiations and high speed trains that’ll cut 20 minutes off over-paid executives’ travel time to Birmingham. Sadly, no one has the foresight to include my choice in my corporation tax payments!

Since we were all here three weeks ago, Alex has painted the walls of the rooms, planted more shrubs and is collecting stones to lay on the paths around the property. He’s employing some of the local boys. They need money to buy schoolbooks, so he’s paying them 5 pence a bucket for stones collected around the fields! A steady flow of small boys arrives as we greet and chatter, plastic containers on their heads, and rattle the stones onto the growing pile.

But there’s mud everywhere. It’s horrid, greasy mud. If I could have paid my tax to this business as a charitable gift, we could go and purchase doormats, pebbles for pathways and so many more useful items towards their eventual independence! Alex shows me the first signboard he’s had painted, awaiting the resources to declare his guest house and restaurant and bar open. It’s well painted by ‘artist Jonah’, it says in one corner. ‘Welcome to Rock Gardens. Enter as a guest, leave as a friend’. It has a picture of one of the round houses, a silhouette of Mount Elgon superimposed, and a depiction of a rider on a motorbike across Mount Elgon. That’s me! I joke that it should also read: ‘enter thin, leave fat’, anticipating Precious’s overestimation of my appetite, so much smaller than hers.

I do love these two young folk. What a happy chances I have to meet such delightful, honest, inspiring youngsters across the world. We sit until midnight beside a fire – slow to get going with all the wet wood around – and talk after dinner. I have my two bottles of beer, Alex and Precious make copious amounts of tea. Little Keilah, about three and no longer terrified of her mzungu granddad, falls asleep on her feet, her torso laid across the seat of one of the ubiquitous Chinese plastic chairs. Jonathan Junior, already nicknamed JB, scavenges in the mud and muck around our feet by the firelight, apparently eating dust from a dropped spoon.

Jonathan (‘JB’) a filthy, very engaging child!

Young Innocent, a willing lad Alex has drafted in to help about the house while he is exploited by his unpleasant employer (who hasn’t paid any wages this month and is trying to persuade Alex to lay off staff, an instruction he is resisting), Innocent plays some game on his phone, the blue light reflecting off his young shiny face. We are peaceful and content – even if I’m a bit tired and would really rather be in bed by now. But Precious and Alex want to maximise their time with ‘Alex’s rich mzungu’, his ironic name that came from his jealous cousins’ and ex-business partners’ (except they weren’t partners…) suspicion that I was staying ‘months’ in their resort while he took my money! The rumour was spread by envious relatives, who resent someone with determination and dreams. Alex is well off out of that business deal. He’ll make out on his own, although there will be many challenges on the way. He knows that and is cheerfully confident. “Oh, we’ll get customers! Already I have people from Kampala asking when I will be ready. You see, they come and like Rock Gardens, but they want showers and toilets.” It’s only the ‘rich mzungu’ who prefers the good company and is willing to accept a wash down in a bucket and is content with a hole in the floor!

The first two round rooms of the guest house

DAY 38. MONDAY 3rd FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

Rain, rain, rain! What a ‘dry’ season this is. Miserable, lashing rain, mud, mud, mud. It’s very unattractive. The heavy undergrowth drips, the light is grey, brown spreads everywhere.

A calm, damp, grey morning at home with my charming Ugandan family, then, just as Precious, who has such a prodigious appetite, announced that she had made another meal, Alex saved me by suggesting a walk to get appetite ourselves. So we set off for rather a long walk. Perhaps a somewhat foolhardy one, in the circumstances – that is the family elder with a weak and damaged ankle…

We walked, I guess, some 9 or 10 kilometres on the roughest, mountainous ground. That might have been OK, had the mountainous ground not been as slippery as ice and my shoes with tread that is fine on dry ground but like slicks on Sipi’s escarpment footpaths and wet grass. Tonight my ankle is stressed, but – kill or cure – taking the strain. But now, as I sit by the cooking fire in what will one day be Rock Garden’s bar, but is now a damp, muddy corner beneath the tin roof of the upper level restaurant, equally unfinished, I have that ingrained sense of dampness that comes from constant, heavy rain. Rain through which I stumbled and slipped for some hours. My clothes are filled with mud stains and generally wet, my mood only made positive by the company around me as Precious and Innocent and Alex prepare our supper. I’m helped by a bottle of beer…

DAY 39. TUESDAY 4th FEBRUARY 2019. MOROTO, UGANDA

I thought I had learned: never ask a non-driver for directions or the condition of the road. “Oh, it’s a good road! Good murram until Nakapiripirit, then a fine highway. Tar! No, it’ll be no problem. You’ll be in Moroto in three hours!”

Yeah… ‘Good road’… Huh.

“Oh, yes, it’s a GOOD road!”

A couple of times today I doubted my sanity. Why the ****** was I doing this? What was I proving? To whom? Why, anyway? Well, of course the only answer is to myself, proving I could do it, despite my anxiety. It’s all about challenging myself and overcoming. How utterly stupid! But, you see, I sit here hours later, as the sun sets, with a Nile Special before me, and I think to myself, ‘I did it’. I battered down my fear of breakdown (ever-present as I ride); I managed to ride a horribly difficult trail (that was supposed to be such a ‘good road’), and I overcame my fear of the remote road and the unknown ahead. I could have faced worse in front, after all; it might lead to even more difficulties.

What I had to deal with was challenge enough. Two of the worst stretches of deep, slippery, cloying mud I have ridden through in many years. It might have been just about a passable road without the recent ceaseless rain. And of course, when I hit the two mud baths, there were plenty of helpers and watchers. Stuck cars and trucks wallowing in deep mud is a big attraction out in the remote bush – that is never so remote in an over populated country like Uganda that there aren’t people hidden in their stick, earth and thatch houses, camouflaged in the landscape. People with nothing better to do than sit and watch and hope for a few shillings for pushing a mzungu through deep mud and filth. And the old ‘mzee’ can still do it! Even with a dicky leg. Mind you, I bet I’m asleep by 8.30 tonight! I am utterly and totally exhausted.

So what was it all in aid of? I’ve decided to investigate a bit of northern Uganda, the Karamajong area that reaches up to the Sudanese border. It’s a region long aloof from the rest of Uganda, frequently troubled in the past and always kept remote from the more cosmopolitan areas of the south of the country. It’s ‘here be dragons’ country. Has it’s own lifestyle and a number of indigenous tribes; cattle herders, who not so long ago were so remote that they even went naked. Tribal Africa. Far from ‘civilisation’. Aggressive by reputation. ‘Different’. Now that’s changed of course. I find, on arrival at Moroto, that there’s now a sweeping tarmac road all the way south to Kampala! Why didn’t you come via Soroti?” I am asked, now I’m here – by Nakapiripirit. “Oh! That road is terrrrible!” Yeah, I know. Now.

I didn’t come by Soroti because I didn’t bloody well know! And because I’d probably have challenged myself if I had…

I slept like a log in Jonathan’s House in Alex’s Rock Gardens (named after Rock Cottage, Harberton) and enjoyed a relaxed breakfast amongst my family. Little Keilah, now about three, who was terrified of the white man only a year ago, is now familiar and fascinated, stroking the hairs on my arm and playing with my pink fingers. Little Jonathan, the junior ‘JB’, is a cheerful, wilful child of 14 months. They are dressed in filthy rags, not through poverty or lack of care, but because they live and play in red mud, dust and stones. It’s a squalid but very natural African childhood. I doubt they’ll ever indulge allergies or become addicted to ‘devices’.

Family photo duty done, I was on the (slippery) road from their gardens about 11. I’d watched the clouds burning off the vast valley below, where we can gaze 100 miles west over Uganda. I knew it’d be warmer down at the lower altitudes. Sipi sits in cool air at 1800 metres, refreshing when I come in a normal dry season – but chilly in this worrying year.

Soon I was on the limitless plain that makes up much of this country. At the foot of the mountains, I turned right onto the murram road to the far north. Murram is merely rock, gravel and dust. In good conditions – which these weren’t – I can ride along at 50 miles an hour. After the endless heavy rains, I was lucky to make 30mph amongst slippery ruts and muddy puddles. But all was going well. In Uganda you seldom leave behind people and ribbon villages, muddy trading centres and idle men. There are children everywhere I look. This week they should be in school, but many fall through the educational system cracks. They’re children of huge poor families and must tend the family cattle, their wealth. School and education is a luxury that few afford or respect out here. Many don’t even see the use of it. Why do you need education when generations have herded their cattle without it? And who’s to check? We’re a long way from inspectors out here. This is remote Uganda and it obeys different rules. Or makes its own.

With care, the ‘road’ was bearable. A few big mud lakes and a lot of slippery filth, but nothing formidable. After an ugly, mud bathed, spreadeagled village, I rode into the Pian-Upe Wildlife Reserve. The track deteriorated. The mud became more frequent. I was crossing a large, bush-covered plain, steep mountains to my right, clouds huddling amongst the rocky peaks. I passed the camp headquarters. Waved at a pointless ‘revenue barrier’ as I passed. Saw a crowd gathered a few hundred yards in front. Lorries blocking the track. Villagers rubbernecking a car that was slithering and struggling, its near side buried nearly roof high in a huge embankment of red, slimy mud, the bonnet blathered in red mud, the driver looking a bit wildly desperate, at an extreme angle as mud arced over his once-white vehicle. It seemed to me that he’d be there for some time yet, a line of ancient trucks impatient for their attempts. I guessed that on my piki-piki I might bypass the sorry mess on the narrow top of the field embankment. I back-tracked, watched by an idle crowd, to a place where I could bounce through the ditch of filth that lined the mud bath and teetered my way, with great concentration, past the obstacle. But now I had to get back to the muddy trail, through a deep ditch of red water and mud. I chose my place, slithered into the mire and promptly fell sideways into the ditch. I spent some minutes tonight washing red mud from my underpants! With the help of a few lads, and with my boots deep in slime, I was able to extricate myself from the mess and regain the mud slick of the ‘road’ – the ‘Oh, yes, Good Road’!

I was congratulating myself on getting through the obstacle, and fist-bump greeting a young man who’d helped to get me upright, when, with a big smile, he said, “Bad road ahead! Same like this!”

Half a mile further on, there was indeed an even worse mud hole. Another 100 yards of deep filth. But I’m an overland biker in Africa, aren’t I? Even if I’m a 70 year old fool too!

There was an occasion in the wet season in Tanzania when perhaps I was more filthy. I was brown just about all over that time. This time I was just bemired in red muck by the time I got through the second obstacle, with the help of a crowd of cheerful boys, pushing and correcting my sliding and slipping. They were rewarded with £1 or so of change from my pocket. Without them, I’d probably have drowned in mud!

Later, at a junction in the red mud road, I stopped to ask my way of a calm fellow with a ready smile. “Yes, keep going. You will find many corners but it will be stony and you will come to a FINE highway in Nakapiripirit!” Music to my ears by then, for I was becoming weary. So tired that ten minutes later I tumbled off the Mosquito on a stony hill and needed the help of a boda-boda passenger to lift my bike from the ditch. Sometimes, being a septuagenarian with an injured leg makes life a trifle more complex!

Well, after 60 of the most testing miles I have ridden for a year or two, I DID emerge onto a fine tar highway. Rather boring, actually. The second half of my 200 kilometre day was on a very lonely, sweeping tar road across a huge landscape, gazing down to limitless Ugandan bush country to a far distant horizon, dotted with old volcano cones. A storm threatened, off to my left, but only a few warning drops disturbed my ride, as I watched anxiously the slashes of torrenting rain away to the west.

I reached Moroto about five or six HARD hours after leaving the family in Sipi. (“Oh, you’ll be in Moroto in three hours on your piki-piki!”). Thankfully, for I was now almost beyond rational thought, I had the recommendation of Wanda and Jorg to a hotel for the night, and arrived half-expected. I’ve a decent room in the quiet compound for less than £12, including breakfast. Now, after two Nile Specials and supper of chicken, chips and local greens, at 19.55, I’m heading for bed. A good day – now it’s ended.

And I proved – pathetically to myself – that I could do it, and there’s life in the old dog yet.

I had to send my pannier bags for repair. I’d caught one of them on part of a lorry as I struggled and slid to pass in the mud. No driver has the patience to wait at a sensible distance, they crowd together, one behind the other, blocking what little of the track is passable to anyone who may just be able to come the other way. Matthew, the guest house assistant, took the bags on a boda-boda back to town, where a cobbler stitched them up efficiently. It’s possible to repair anything in Africa – all those things we’d be told were beyond repair and we must buy new in our throw away culture. Those bags have been stitched back together in various places. It’s hard work for canvas bags, being trundled across the depredations of the African landscape. A couple of pounds, including transport and a tip to Matthew, extends their life again.

DAY 40. WEDNESDAY 5th FEBRUARY 2019. SOROTI, UGANDA

I’ve failed. The legendary JB obstinacy has been beaten – by a combination of climate change and rounders, rounders being the game I was playing on the beach when I tore my Achille’s tendon back in September. Climate change is a little more serious, of course, but my weak ankle is a very personal trial. I feel rather a deep sense of failure.

A problem of long, lone journeys – especially over boring, flat bush lands, is that there’s a tendency to fill the time with self-analysis, and to flagellate myself with criticism of weakness, increasing age, timidity and lack of stamina. Maybe I AM too old to be acting as I do? Maybe it’s just my injured leg, swollen by evening from sitting for hours on the bike, telling me to slow down?

By about one o’clock the African sun was completely veiled by cloud. Not those usual puffy white handkerchiefs drifting across the infinite blue dome of the equatorial sky, but grey-lined blankets that presage rain. I had by now turned off the new highway, a few miles from Moroto, onto the long piste to the north. I’d already, in the light of yesterday’s efforts, decided to limit my ride to reach only Kotido, little over 100 kilometres. But as I left the main tarred highway, I was setting off onto a circuit of gravel and earth roads that would take me over 650 kilometres of hard, rain deteriorated tracks. That’s 400 long miles. On my own. With probable slippery mud for parts of it. About twenty minutes into that journey, that would take me perhaps five days or more, the clouds ahead were thickening and boiling high into storm heads. I could see sharp showers to left and right. It was only a matter of time before left and right became ‘here’. I stopped. The piste – it really wasn’t a ‘road’ – was narrow and already broken, two deep ruts with a hard central ridge and muddy dips to either side. A false move, loss of concentration on my hours’ long journeys and I’d be in difficulties. It was very remote and would become far more so. I was on my own. Entirely alone. Yesterday, when I fell off the bike on a stony hill, I had difficulty in getting a footing with my damaged ankle, then got stuck with the weight of the bike on my leg – the bad one of course. I realised that my strength in that leg is compromised. In 650 kilometres of trails like this, I was pretty well bound to tumble off here and there if I hadn’t the strength to react rapidly.

It’s not as if I had to get across this region to get somewhere. I was here only from curiosity, to go and see the Karamajong people, a different tribal life, the old life of Africa, so seldom seen any more. A place where independent people follow their own traditions – as much as anyone with a mobile phone constantly in hand can be said to be following their own traditions, not those of the material world that has engulfed them so rapidly. I was riding merely to see what was there. 650 kilometres of potential risk – with the rewards of overcoming my own fears, of perhaps finding some interest amongst the peoples, seeing the lands of the remote north. With the risk of possible accidents that would be more severe with one 70 year old leg (the other being about 40!) that is so vulnerable. All this to extend the lines on my African maps.

Beaten, I turned round.

I had the satisfaction of watching these clouds in my mirrors. I’d made the right decision…

I rode back towards the new highway, back to more cosmopolitan Uganda. Away from rain – as I thought, only to ride through various light showers on my long, boring slog south to Soroti.

Soroti is a noisy, incredibly noisy, scruffy, busy regional town that I associate with perhaps one of the hottest nights of my East African safaris. I stayed here three years ago and sweated the night away on top of the bed. Tonight I am going to bed beneath a blanket. (It didn’t last, as I had to close the window to keep out the noise and sweated in a humid room).

In the north, as far as I went, which was just touching the edges of the tribal lands I wanted to see, I felt a distance and aloofness from the people I passed. There wasn’t the usual Ugandan welcome and waves. Children watched me without the usual passion, unresponsive. A reserve I don’t associate with this extremely friendly country. Approaching Soroti, the greetings began again. The people of the north have followed their own stars for long enough, cut off from the rest of the country, to have a self-determined spirit and insularity. Young women wear flared, pleated, above-the-knee-length skirts; the men barelegged, with a cloth tied about their waists or across their shoulders; a bizarre psychedelic Trilby hat with a long feather poking from the back, or slightly risible tall striped, knitted, flat-topped tubes, about six inches high, perched on the crown of their heads, with a narrow upturned brim. Odd thing, fashion. All men and boys carry a herding stick and most now, amongst these people who eschewed clothing nor so long ago, wear Uganda or Premiere League football strip shirts, ubiquitous phone company tee shirts or mtumba wear – Western charity rejects. Most clamp a mobile phone in that palm clutch that will probably become a genetic modification in future generations. Chances are, I wasn’t going to witness much remote ethnic culture anyway!

A strong blustery wind rose as I rode south, bored witless by the tedium of endless low bush country, dotted with thatch and earth homes, round huts with concentric circles of reed thatch. Countless muddy children everywhere. Endless herds of cows and goats wandering across my road. I did have the comfort of watching the clouds thicken and turn slate blue, building to storm clouds across the entire sky in my mirrors. I’d made the correct decision. One vehicle overtook me in 100 miles, and my Mosquito snails along at just 35 to 40mph. The road is so new that no one’s yet had the enterprise to open a petrol station or chai house along its entire length.

There’s obviously a plan to develop the region, perhaps to accommodate some of the ballooning population. I passed through several non-existent villages, no more than a road-sign and a few feeder roads onto the nearby bush. A few straggly villages whipped past, red dust, incomplete buildings, countless boda-bodas, the only desperate employment opportunity out there, where nothing happens from one week to the next and everyone scratches a near-poverty existence. ‘Educate a girl: you educate a nation’, urged one township. ‘Don’t sell your children. Send them to school’, exhorted another. ‘Sale’ being exchanging child daughters for dowry of cattle and money. Featureless semi slums of scruffy habitations. This frighteningly overpopulated land… My thoughts weren’t very positive.

Finally, almost asleep from boredom after several hours of this featureless road, I reached Soroti. Civilisation. It’s oddly attractive, despite its noise. It has a strong past Indian influence, with arcaded shops along the main street, through which klaxon heavy lorries and several thousand small smelly Chinese motorbikes. The Asians probably left during Idi Amin’s pogroms, and there are few Asian faces now. But the distinctive architectural style survives them. There are banks, regional offices, numerous clothes shops where pink mannequins stand sentry in the covered footpaths, petrol stations and hotels. An arcaded East African main street with Asian influence.

I found a smart £13 hotel on the main street and selected a top floor back room, away from the thoroughfare and klaxons. There’s even a lavatory seat. I’ve a balcony looking down into the yard behind the bank and overlooking the side streets, filled with boda-bodas and noise. I can see right across the town to the deep blue rain clouds boiling all around, 360 degrees of what should be African glare. And tonight there are no stars, just a stiff breeze arising from the rainy north where I should have been tonight. I had a new front tyre fitted in Moroto in preparation too. Fitted at ‘Karachi’s’ motorbike shop, owner, Ali from Pakistan.

The hotel regulations include the following directions:

* Guest room duvets, pillows, bed sheets, and towels are not for wiping shoes.
* The hotel does not allow fighting in the rooms as it can lead to destruction of the hotel property.
* When our staff is cleaning the guest room with or without a guest inside all doors MUST be open.
* Bringing of hazardous goods to the guest room is highly prohibited e.g. fuel explosives etc. In case of any tragedy a guest is fully liable to management’s.
* All hotel items (moveable property) e.g. bed sheets, pillows and their covers, duvets, TV remotes, towels etc, should be left in the rooms intact when checking out.

The Laundry Services price list tells me that washing knickers or pants (at over £1) is more expensive than washing a pair of jeans or washing and pressing a pair of bed sheets. It’s one of the most expensive itemised costs on the list. Only washing a duvet or blanket costs more than a pair of undies. It’s a cultural taboo to wash anyone else’s underwear in much of East Africa.

I am happy to see – on the hotel laundry list – that I could get a carpet cleaned for as little as £6.

A disappointing day, a feeling of frustration and a sense of failure. A feeling that this 2020 safari is more aimless than usual. Now I need to get that leg up and stop feeling sorry for myself! Not every journey, every moment, can be fascinating. And anyway, most of the satisfaction is retrospective! Maybe I’ll look back on this and create the stories of the adventures and highlights as usual. Forget the tedium and disappointments. Life’s pretty good at doing that.

And here’s the rain. Lightning too. Another big rolling storm. Dry season Africa.

DAY 41. THURSDAY 6th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

I awoke, weary, after a night of heavy persistent rain, thunder and lightning that put out all the lights and empowered a hammering diesel generator in the yard of the bank below my window. It roared from 10.00pm until 8.15 this morning, not even kept at bay by earplugs. The trials of a light sleeper.

My quite new hotel included breakfast in my £13 deal. Two waitresses looked after me, Rose and Angela. Angela was very zealous in her attention, whipping away my plates as I finished. Then: “How’s the White Horse Inn?” she ventured. Imagine my surprise. The White Horse Inn is a fine old colonial hotel on the other side of Uganda, a hotel into which I cheekily bargained my way on two enjoyable occasions. “Angela!” I exclaimed, memory pouring back. Both Rose and Angela worked there, but hailing from this district, have moved to the Town View Hotel here in Soroti. I even have a portrait of Angela in one of my photo books. The old hotel is in Kabale, in Uganda’s beautiful far western mountains, hundreds of miles across the country. And I am recognised two years later. Tourists who engage with hotel staff are uncommon in Africa. We get remembered. It turned out they remembered me from even earlier: the time I stayed a night in another hotel here in Soroti, where they both trained.

Riding away from the hotel – leaving the bed sheets, pillows and their covers, duvets, TV remotes, and towels intact in the room – the road south eastwards from Soroti back towards hectic Mbale is unexceptional, rolling through towns and villages ugly with mud stains and half completed structures. It crosses swampy lands filled with reed beds and glittering ponds of water. Away to the north lies a big straggly lake. Along the way, on the 100 miles back to the family in Sipi, I pass through the village of Television. I wonder how THAT got its name?

I’ve decided to retreat to Sipi. Maybe instead of risking the lone rides with a weak leg, I should get to know my charming Ugandan family better. This trip is taking on a different perspective to the others, more settled and slow owing to my injured leg. Frustrating for one usually so restless, but I must try to turn it to a positive instead.

The view from the Sipi escarpment

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