EPISODE SIX. RIFTS AND MOUNTAINS. DISCRETION GETS THE BETTER OF OBSTINACY. January 30 – February 5th

I am on a journey. An adventure of sorts. As I set off, I am apprehensive but just a bit excited too. I love this state. I have been here so many times and for me it is the breath of life – curiosity about what will happen, where I will go, who I will meet. There’s no strict plan, just the idea of riding all the very long way down to the Kenyan coast, down to the Indian Ocean, days away. This year, there’s an added zest: I am the only tourist anyone’s seen, the only escapee from the Infected North (as people here see it).

As I write, the heat of a log fire tingles on my sunburned face. I’m on the road, heading to unknowns. It’s not exactly crossing uncharted territory – just down the African roads to the east – but the future’s hidden to me. It’s the thrill of Unknown Tomorrows to which I have always responded on almost 150 journeys out of my home country. 

*

The Kaptagat Hotel – faded colonial charm

The Kaptagat Hotel, a bit of (very) faded colonial elegance. You can imagine that it was once an exclusively white preserve, the only black skins serving the beer and pink gins. It’s got that sort of feel about it. Each year that I visit it gets just a trifle more dowdy – but I like that. I mean, where did I last sleep beneath a Candlewick bedspread – except here at the old Kaptagat Hotel with its corrugated-roofed bungalows in fine mature gardens, laid out by some colonial gardener sick for home. On which note: I never get homesick, well, I wouldn’t would I? But the single impulse I have found that brings momentary homesickness, or perhaps it’s just a sort of nostalgia, is irises – the flower. And outside my room they bloom in the European climate of Kaptagat. Irises always bring me a sense of childhood summers; a sentimentality for a time – probably imaginary – that I will never recapture; a sensation of age creeping up inexorably. Irises! Huh! 

*

I have repeatedly written that going back in Africa is important. It’s so nice to be recognised and welcomed back, before I have hardly stepped on the paths of the old hotel. Mind you, Ellen, the manager of the few faded rooms, says I am the FIRST foreign tourist to stay here for a WHOLE YEAR. And the previous foreign tourist? ME, a year ago! I am a very rare species just now. 

Ellen brings a pan of charcoal and a bucket of corn husks to start an fragrant log fire in the old brick grate. She waits awhile, with her counterpart, another Ellen, both of whom hug me a welcome, and adds big cedar logs to my blaze. It’s probably the reason I come back here every year. To sleep in a room with a blazing log fire, just a few miles north of the Equator at 8000 feet. It impossible to overstate the luxury, even though, for most, it might seem humble, the place a trifle scruffy.

Later, the Ellens bring my supper. Tonight I’ve ordered a simple meal, just some ugali with green vegetables from Ellen’s own shamba and a couple of hardboiled eggs. I had shamba avocados again for lunch before leaving Kitale, as it’s only two and a half hours riding to get to Kaptagat, on roads I know by now. 

*

Within a few miles of the middle of the planet, up here at 8000 feet, mornings in Kaptagat are cold, much too chilly to ride the motorbike until the sun climbs some way up the dramatically blue sky. But here I am close also to the western rim of the Rift Valley and I know that by lunchtime I will be steaming – in helmet, jacket, gloves, goggles, motocross trousers and boots – at the bottom of the great chasm. It’s impossible to dress for a day like this on the bike. I will be up and down through climatic zones all day long, for I am going to cross the valley and climb far above its eastern rim. It’s one of the eternal fascinations of Kenya where the Rift is so pronounced and visible. 

A garden full of birds and birdsong and the soughing of a stiff breeze, perhaps coming up out of the valley. Tiny birds, little bigger than wrens that are so small they can balance on a blade of grass where the panga has missed it on the lawns and bend it down to pick the seeds. Raptors high above between the tall coniferous trees and bright little yellow weaver birds, their nests hanging from the ends of boughs above my room, settle briefly on my breakfast table under a thatched cover. 

*

For a geographical feature big enough to identify from space – even the moon, I have been told – the Great Rift Valley is remarkably shy about being found here on earth. It’s over five thousand feet deep, and within a mile or so of where I am riding – but can I SEE it? I ride the difficult red rocky trail I have found – a new one to me, who’s been this way many times – thinking I’m bound to see the huge gap in the Earth. But no, it is almost always elusive.

However, when it does reveal itself, it is stunningly dramatic and well worth the previous disappointments. I reach a junction with a tar road that I’m not expecting, promptly follow what seems the logical direction – which I should know, seldom works in this landscape – and ride ten miles the wrong way. Where’s the bloody Rift Valley? Well, of course, I’m at this point going AWAY from it anyway. Eventually light dawns and some fellows at the roadside confirm what I now suspect and watch me turn round, laughing. Working my way through earthy roadworks, for the tar finishes quite soon in the other direction, I sense rather than actually see a stupendous view to my left. I KNEW it was there; now suddenly the Rift is revealed in all its phenomenal wonder. Stopping the Mosquito amongst piles of earth at the side of the roughly formed road I push apart some bushes and almost fall into the Rift! I’m atop an almost vertical escarpment that drops hundreds of feet, and then thousands more. A worthy way to go, maybe, plunging into a geological wonder visible from the moon, but not yet… I’m not ready! The view is colossal. Worth all the angst of that precipitate escape from home; of the insecurity of not knowing how and when I can return; of the rigours of the roads; the dust; the heat; the doubts. THIS is why I travel: for these moments of wonder that well up like a physical knot of emotion in my stomach. This ‘I’m here!’ moment. I gaze and gaze into the hazy abyss, fulfilled. 

It’d be a long drop…
The Rift Valley, visible, they say, from the moon. Pretty good from Earth too.

Tantalising glimpses of the valley open here and there on the remainder of that surprisingly long road as I plough through dusty roadworks and across newly turned earth scored by road machines into a rutted dry mess. Then at last I am back on the main tar road I know, but only for 200 yards, for now I know to turn off onto one of my favourite African roads. (You may note that several roads in the highlands of Kenya and a round Mount Elgon are my favourites! Well, you should see them..!)

In about twelve miles the road that I take from Nyaru, an insignificant hamlet of tin shacks and schools, or the rocky trail, to be more accurate, drops to Kimwarer in a series of about 18 serpentine hairpins. In twelve miles the trail descends 5184 feet! Nyaru is at a chilly, fresh 8990 feet, the valley bottom just here at 3806. This is trail riding to relish. Magnificence unbound. Blue shades of mountain faces stretching into apparent infinity. Always vistas at my feet. The track bumping away into the scenic distance, from coniferous forests down to aloes and cacti. From chill, sharp air to suffocating warmth. In TWELVE miles. OF COURSE it’s one of my favourite trails! Of course I have taken this track every year for the past five years, sometimes up, sometimes down. I never tire of it, tiring though it may be. 

At the bottom I stop for sweet chai. I need it. I’m smiling but weary, my energy low by now. Peter joins me as I sip the scalding sugary horror, but I can feel the strength coming from the surfeit of sweetness. Peter wants to chat. I’d rather just gaze at the bush land around me quietly, but he’s polite and respectful, so I can’t rebuff him. He has ambitions. God, in whom he believes – this is a piece of information commonly shared with strangers – will provide. He has a small shop across the road, but no capital. He wants to manufacture cosmetics, he says. He wants to market them in Uganda too, so he asks how is that country, hearing that I have been there recently. He’s interested in palm oil, an ingredient of many cosmetics – a product of West Africa, not East Africa – when he hears I’ve been there too. He wants to travel to England. He’s certainly adaptable to his conversational partner! Now he wants ‘my number, so we can communicate’, but I tell him, quite convincingly it appears from his expression, that I have trodden on my phone and decided not to buy a new one since I will be leaving Africa shortly. “Why not give me YOUR number?” I suggest, “then when I get a new one, I can be in touch. And I’ll look in at your new shop when I am passing.” I’m not really giving him the cold shoulder, but I know a relationship founded on a mug of hot sweet tea isn’t going anywhere. Easier this way. 

*

Crossing the Great Rift is fascinating. Here it is split into the Kerio Valley, the branch that I overlook from my room at Kessup, and the Rift Valley itself. Kerio Valley spurs off, a similar depth, to the west side of the huge rupture. When I leave Peter, I continue to ride downwards, just another hundred metres or so, then, across the Kerio River that snakes along the bottom of the valley, I begin the ascent to the intervening ridge. At the top sits the scruffy regional town of Kabarnet. I can look back from the curling serpentines of the road and see the far wall of the valley, misted by distance – it must be about ten miles away – down which I bounced an hour back. Now my little Mosquito puffs up to Kabarnet and its busy town traffic, boda-bodas and matatus jostling.

Then it’s off along another old favourite road, through the mess of Tenges, a strip development better unseen, along a narrow ridge of mountain. Sometimes the Kerio Valley and the Great Rift are visible fifty yards away on either side, plunging into green depths behind conifers on the steep slopes. I first came this way some years ago. Then it was a bumpy adventure; now the tarmac, only four years old, is breaking up into diabolical holes. Just as well I am on my versatile Mosquito and can balance and weave through it all, dancing on the foot pegs, back down into the eastern valley now, the Rift Valley proper. From the chill and dense greens of conifers I am soon spinning down through waving eucalyptus and into the cooking valley, with cacti and aloes, avoiding potholes the size of bathtubs and wandering cattle searching for sustenance. Short years ago, this was smooth tarmac, but the climate isn’t sympathetic and maintenance is a word unknown on the African continent. 

*

On Monday, I stay in Eldama Ravine. I’ve often stopped here, but still haven’t found a hotel I like. Once, I stayed in a big hotel at the bottom of town, and it was perhaps the noisiest place I EVER stayed. A disco that continued all night and literally shook the hotel. This time I returned to a place I found last year. I took a room away from the road, overlooking views of distant mountains across a sea of debris, bad construction and garbage. After an hour I returned to reception. “Can you let me into the secret of how I can get a warm shower?” The receptionist came and fiddled, standing on the edge of the bath. She called the ‘electrician’. He stood on the edge of the bath and took the unit to pieces. Finally, they moved me to another room. It was as the electrician stood, fingers exploring live wires, feet in the bath, that I remembered: I stayed in this room a YEAR ago, and the shower didn’t work… That time it was warm enough to have a cold shower. Maintenance? No… in the second room the lavatory leaked a big puddle on the floor and some smart artisan had nailed the towel rail to the back of the door, so the door only opened half way and the tiles had cracked from repeated assault. 

*

Tuesday was a long day. Riding through more climatic zones, I rode down from Eldama and took the short cut I know that avoids the main highway up from Nairobi. It follows an old colonial railway line, through places with redolent names like ‘McCall’s Siding’  and ‘Milton’s Siding’. The railway is long defunct, as are most in East Africa. Now it’s just an occasional steel rail to bounce over in the earth and rock. The trail is being ‘repaired’ and is a dust bath from end to end for twenty miles or so. Then a fine new tarred road I never used before along the floor of the Rift Valley, a place of expansive fruit orchards and a mysteriously copper-coloured lake, Lake Solai, where large flocks of flamingoes brightened the red shoreline and a crowd of seventy or more giant crested cranes pecked at a field like bobbing oil wells. 

As Rico says, the only time you’ll see so many cranes together is on a Chinese building site!

Up the eastern face of the valley to Nyahururu, said to be Kenya’s highest major town at 7750 feet, but a place of little attraction for me, after various visits. It’s enough to stop at the snobby Thomson’s Falls Lodge and drink overpriced chai (“Oh, a pot of tea, Sir?”) and samosas in my faded jacket and dusty clothing, and look at the nearby falls without doing battle with the tourist stands. Another slog across the top of Kenya to Nyeri. I cross the Equator back and forth seven or eight times on this ride, switching between northern and southern hemispheres, each time an excuse for souvenir stalls, now mostly locked up and tired. No tourists, except me, and I’m not very good news for them. Crossing the Equator, symbolic though it is, always brings a frisson of pleasure. 

And so to a noisy town called Karatina, that sounds more like a vegetable smoothie than a habitable place. A tedious search brought me to a fine hotel via four rotten ones. My instinct is well developed. And my budget pretty immovable. “Do you have an upstairs room?” I asked in one, as the manager showed me a gloomy room at the right price. “No, they are all booked!”

“All booked..?” The place was not far above a dump. 

“Yes, we have a group of customers who come and drink and sleep. No, there’s no noise! They will sleep by one or two…”

I was quickly out of there! Others fancied they were a bit more ‘international’ standard and tariff than they looked. And then I found one that was perfect. £14 a night for a top floor room with a view of Mount Kenya, friendly staff, even a large swimming pool, were I attracted. It’s the worst part of every travelling day, finding somewhere to sleep. But there’s always SOMEWHERE. 

And I was even invited to play a small walk on part in a student film in the hotel yard. No idea what it was all about, but a mzungu with white hair and gravitas obviously added something to their story about corrupt politicians. Richard, the director, promised he’ll send me the You Tube link..! Haha, life in Africa. It’s such FUN!

*

Some days require of me considerable stamina, patience and endless bloody-minded obstinacy. My friends know that I have a plentiful supply of the latter. As to stamina, at present I feel the fittest and strongest I’ve felt for some years. Fortunately. Patience has to be subsumed into the stubbornness! Wednesday was such a day…

323 kilometres, 200 miles. At maximum 45mph. Six and a half hours in the saddle. Half an hour stop for chai and chapatis. Boredom incarnate much of the way. Endless vistas of not very much, just bush lands to the distant horizon as I dropped from the shoulders of Mount Kenya down towards the lower parts of Kenya. It’s often forgotten that much of Kenya is a high land. Nairobi itself at 5000 feet and everything west of there, with the exception of the yawning gulf of the Rift Valley, getting higher to the western borders. It’s near that western border that I consider ‘home’ in Kitale, at 6000 feet. Tonight I am approaching the coastal plains and it’s hot and humid and any exertion brings on a heavy sweat. 

Mount Kenya at dawn – from the window of a £14 hotel! If you look closely, you can just see the remaining evidence of the disappearing glaciers.

*

The road that circles Mount Kenya – a big circle – seems for some reason to be inordinately busy, generally with terrible drivers. The first 50 kilometres of my day were tedious, to the regional town of Embu. Then I turned south onto a road I once took, 19 years ago on my Elephant. I was returning the old BMW to Mombasa to fly him home at the end of my 2002 journey that brought me from as far away as Cape Town to the top corner of Kenya at Lokkichoghio. I recollect not a thing of that ride – except that my shock absorber had burst and the road I took today was then just dust and rock and ruts. Thankfully, Kenya’s huge investment in road infrastructure has reached these eastern roads and I had 323 kilometres of smooth tarmac to negotiate in my comatose state. Empty of traffic too. Just mind-numbingly boring. 

At Kibwezi, the circular route on which I have travelled to avoid Nairobi and its environs, meets the main highway from Mombasa on the coast, up to Nairobi and far beyond into the interior of East Africa, carrying most of the road haulage from the docks to Uganda and Rwanda. Here I turn east and head down to the steamy coastline.

As I write, on Wednesday evening at sunset, (about 7.00) there’s another difference from the rest of Kenya. As I drink my Guinness the moans and groans of Islam drift across the oppressive stuffy air. I am in Moslem Kenya. How can this tedious drone be worship? I must accustom myself for the next week or so. Ear plugs at night… 

*

Thursday. Sometimes, although it may feel like defeat, discretion is the better part of obstinacy…

It’s not often that African traffic spooks me, after all I have ridden over 30,000 miles in 23 countries on the continent. I have ridden in the chaos of Ethiopia and the madness of Kampala. I have twice suffered the dangers of the Jinga to Kampala racetrack, that until now I thought the most hazardous stretch of African tarmac (and rubble). 

Forty kilometres from Kibwezi, at a scruffy roadside habitation called Mtito Andei, where I once stayed towards the end of my 2002 journey with my African Elephant, I decided enough was absolutely enough. I had evaded death by racing coach and non-disciplined heavy truck about twice a kilometre. One truck had even sprayed me with a fountain of diesel oil from its tank. Obscene personal 4X4 tanks, driven by impatient businessmen, had tried to force me off the road numerous times. I flicked V signs, shook my fists, and gesticulated at more oncoming death wagons than I have ever done in Africa before, where I usually manage to keep my temper when riding: it’s me that suffers the consequences of anger after all. 

At Mtito Andei I stopped, exhausted from just 25 miles, for chai and to calm down. A friendly engineer, Gordon, pulled in next to me in his car. “Oh, I have been behind you! I thought to myself, this must be a mzungu on an adventure. I could see from the way you rode and overtook; and you kept your position in the road against the trucks! I thought, this is an experienced rider, he must be mzungu!” 

“Well, I can’t take any more of it! I’m turning back. It’s another 200 miles of this to Mombasa, and there’s no choice but the same road back. I can’t face it!”

“And you’ll meet LOOONG roadworks on the way! Lines of big trucks and DUST!”

That was enough. Then, said Gordon, I can’t go north from Malindi, a historic town about a third of the way up the Kenyan coastal strip, without military escort because of Moslem fundamentalists. “No, they won’t let you go…” 

“Maybe I’ll just go back to Nairobi and take a trip to Mombasa on the new high speed Chinese train instead,” I suggested. “Now I am going back to the deserts and mountains.”

Oddly, I didn’t need quite so much stubbornness to follow the same long and tedious road back the way I came yesterday. I think the relief was so much, to be on a quiet, traffic-free road, that my mind just settled down to the long ride, content. I had two reasons for going down to Mombasa – a city in which I once stayed a few days when I flew the Elephant home from its airport to Heathrow in 2002 – and not a city that mush attracted me at the time. I was going to visit Maureen, one of the original Rico Girls that I have known since she was about two years old, and admire for her determination in studying photography and journalism largely by her own financial efforts; and I was going to visit Yuri, a small-time motorbike dealer from whom I bought the Mosquito in January 2017. He admits to a fondness for the little Suzuki he sold to me and was interested to see it again. 

Riding in these places has changed since I was here in 2002. It’s more dangerous since China flooded the continent with small, cheap motorbikes – boda-bodas. They swarm everywhere, badly driven, overloaded, desperate for a few pennies of business. They weave about and irritate car and truck drivers. I’m sure it used to be that if drivers saw a fast motorbike coming, they respected me; now they assume I am another annoying boda-boda and attack, driving me off the tarmac as they choose. Trouble is, I am NOT a boda-boda, and I am travelling twice as fast as most of the small Chinese machines. That means the closing distance is twice as acute. Everything happens twice as fast and reaction times are halved. Consequence: danger. Reaction: get the hell out of this race. For once discretion wins…

Maybe I can visit Maureen by train. 

*

Turning around, I hurried the forty kilometres back to where I had started, yelling obscenities at drivers who couldn’t hear and didn’t care, and turned so gratefully off that death track back onto the  ‘boring’, ‘endless’, ‘relentless’ tar road across the miles of bush country and eventually rising ever so slowly towards the bulk of Mount Kenya once more. Now I didn’t mind the tedium, the backache and heat. I was going away from that hell-road. 

*

By 4.30, I had been on the road for seven hours and was flagging. On the way through yesterday, I had seen that a small town – more a roadside strip – called Kivaa, had some hotels and guest houses, nothing extravagant or even attractive, but conveniently placed for me to break the journey. The Mountain View Hotel, in which I ended up with a huge room painted in lurid orange, vomit green and pungent mauve, with an octagonal window, is half built. It looks like a long term project for someone as there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way in. I entered through a kiosk selling gas bottles and stoves. The side that faces a small mountain – hence ‘Mountain View’ – is entirely of concrete block without so much as a peephole through which to view said mountain. Mountain View Hotel faces the wrong way… But Elizabeth, a fatly cheerful middle aged woman who, oddly, speaks no English at all, was all smiles, incomprehensible jokes, wobbly chuckles and helpfulness. We understood one another in that language that doesn’t require words: a vocabulary of goodwill and smiles. She was such a delight that I couldn’t move on. I’d have disappointed her too much! The price was about right at £13.70, the bed firm, the large tiled room spotless despite its sickening palette, and any defect was amply repaid by Elizabeth’s jolly character. Later, she even accompanied me to find supper, leaving me in a basic roadhouse, empty but for me and two cooks behind a steel grille, who rustled up rice with the local densely green vegetable, ‘sakuma’, and a couple of fried eggs. 

Every day bring something memorable. Even this Thursday, a day that brought anger and frustration, and smiles from rotundly ebullient Elizabeth. Africa has that ability: to defuse my moods by kindness and friendship from complete strangers, outgoing ways that make me feel ashamed of my impatient emotions and irritation. Thanks to sunny Elizabeth, a ghastly day ends with a smile… and, it must be said, a can of Guinness and one of Tusker, from a nearby petrol station. 

I’m back in the hotel south of Mt Kenya, uploading this episode, hoping to see the mountain at dawn tomorrow. Another day in Africa…

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