Another long episode, I’m afraid. No internet for some days, so settle down at leisure..!
Kenya is notorious for the millions of speed humps that litter every highway – and byway. I remember one town in 2002 that boasted 60 bumps along its short mile of main road. They do limit uncontrolled speeding I suppose. My Mosquito, being a predominantly off-road bike, can take them as they come. I just stand up on the foot-pegs as I leap over the concrete bumps. In fact, they are frequently my best way to get ahead of irritating traffic, for I can overtake as four-wheeled vehicles crawl over the obstacles. They do keep drivers vigilant; hit one at speed and it can wreck cars, cause accidents and damage vehicles.
The Mosquito leapt over a small hump near a local police post on a remote tarred road. Out of the corner of my eye, something flew away. Actually, the left hand horn bracket finally gave in and severed – yes, my little bike has two, although even together they make a pathetic squark! Somehow, as it flew off, it short-circuited the entire machine and blew the main 20 amp fuse. I guessed that’s what had happened, but it took two hours to solve the problem. I pushed the bike back into the shade of a verandah of one of the police buildings and started investigating. Bike electrics are a mystery when they work and a complete enigma when they don’t.
Outside the police post, I took off the tank and seat and began to poke about. No one took any notice; in the highlands I’d have been surrounded by questioning people within moments. I’m just judging by my instinct, but it’s intriguing how these disparate – probably tribal – characteristics are so noticeable. I had to ask for help. It was grudgingly given by a policeman, dropping heavy hints that he should be rewarded with ‘lunch’ (for which read money) for phoning a local auto electrician. I gave him a short speech about helping visitors, a comment that annoyed him. When Peter, the electrician, completed the repair, having ridden his boda-boda back to his workshop 5 kilometres away for a car fuse he could adapt, he consulted the policeman – I am sure asking advice what to charge the mzungu – and requested a scandalous amount that he probably doesn’t earn in several days. I gave him over the odds, for to be fair, he had sorted out my problem, but not what the policeman had greedily suggested. I bet Peter had to pay a ‘finders fee’ to the policeman. Sadly, petty corruption is endemic in Kenyan policemen. Proudly, I have never yet paid a bribe in Africa. I respond with as good as I get, and irritate them cheerfully. Since no policeman knows quite who I am, or might know, they seldom persist. If they do, I have been known to wait them out, demanding to be taken to the station or their superior!
For a few days I have been in a different tribal region to the people of the highlands, with whom I relate so comfortably. Many of the people amongst whom I spend the most time up there are of the Kalenjin tribe – outgoing, generous and welcoming. The past days have been spent amongst mainly Kikuyu people: sharper of feature, thinner faces, lighter skins – less inquisitive and welcoming, less likely to break into smiles – and much more mercenary. A mzungu is frequently seen as a challenge, not a guest. I’ve caused little interest where I have been, except as a source of cash. Almost no one’s waved at the passing mzungu. I’m happy I’m on my way back up to the highlands in a few days.
Geoff, duty manager of the hotel with the view of Mount Kenya, is a Kikuyu, but very charming. An intelligent young man, he trained in Nairobi and is smart and respectful. He’d love to travel. I find this often amongst bright young people – well, men, I suppose… They are accepting of their straightened circumstances but ambitious to find out more and to better their lot in life. Limited by lack of employment opportunities and always strapped for cash, they struggle optimistically, and usually without envy of my freedoms.
“I dream of seeing other places, but I am fortunate to have this job. I have only one day off and I work 15 hours! So I suppose there’s not much chance to travel! Maybe I could start with Uganda…”
We talk of where I’ve been. I tell him about Ethiopian buna – their spectacularly wonderful coffee. His eyes shine at the stories I tell him, as I stand in the basic garden bar. Small and sharply featured, he sports a nascent beard and moustache, as much as any young African man can grow. I’m jealous of his tidy teeth – his own, unlike my metal implants. Every day I lecture people about cutting their sugar addictions. These people don’t have either the dentists or the king’s ransom to buy titanium teeth!
Geoff listens and drinks in the stories, knowing that his opportunities are so much more restricted by birth in a poor country, than mine with my privileges. I don’t sense jealousy, just acceptance borne of pragmatism. We both accept he may one day get to Uganda, but I know his chances of getting to Europe are negligible – he’s never going to be wealthy enough to be able to be considered for a visa by the xenophobic North, let alone to purchase a fare. Maybe he’ll get to Ethiopia, it’s not far away. I tell him of the fascinating culture and the history of that country, unlike anything in Africa. “There are churches there older than the cathedrals of Europe! Still in use. It’s a very strong culture, historic and intellectual.” Geoff tells me of a church near Karatina, where we are, that has been in use since 1912. “Yes, Geoff, but I am talking about a THOUSAND years! You should try to visit Ethiopia. Go for a buna: it’s worth it! And the best looking young women in all Africa too…” He’s probably paid next to nothing for his 15 hour days though. Ambition and dreams frustrated by circumstances, as usual on this continent.
Riding north around the western flank of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain at 17,057 feet, now just a wash of grey against the slightly more ethereal sky, I stop as I have done several times before at a cafe before I begin the long descent to the northern deserts. It’s the only place I know in the country where I can eat cake and drink a decent latte. Of course, it’s owned by a mzungu. There are a lot of mzungus in the area around Nanyuki. It’s where all the flowers are grown on huge farms under plastic, for export to Europe. There are many big farms owned by white people for several generations. These mzungus are Kenyan by birth and probably by nationality. And here, just north of Nanyuki, they have a ready market for decent coffee and cakes, even for souvenirs and steak dinners. The British Army maintains a training outpost here. “They went away at the beginning of Covid,” says John with whom I fall into conversation, “but now they are coming back.” John, who’s black Kenyan, runs a horse-riding-at-altitude business with his partner, a woman from Devon, it turns out, but he can’t remember where she’s from. This region, with the mountain above us in the haze, is one of Kenya’s popular tourist areas, and quite a lot of mzungus live round here. In an hour, I see more white skins than I have seen since I left Europe. Soon we are joined by the owner, several generations of Kenya in her blood. Her family owns a huge game park. Three young Britons come with her, relatives of some sort. I ask them what they are doing. They’re the first tourists I’ve seen in two months.
“Oh, we’re Covid refugees! We got out. We’re still working too!” The wonders if the internet. They are hoping to rent motorbikes for a trip in the deserts down below us. They want advice. “No, we came out of Heathrow well after Britain locked down,” they say, when I explain that I travelled before Christmas. “The government say they banned travel, but I came out in January and no one even asked why I was going, or where. The airports are too lucrative to stop travel, the government knows that,” says one of the young men. I tell them that on the day I flew, when it was still perfectly legal, there were only 50 flights out of Terminal 2 in the whole day, and Terminal 1 was closed, this at one of the world’s busiest airports. “Well, you should’ve seen it on January 10th; Heathrow was heaving!” says one of the young Brits. Interesting stories you don’t hear at home… “We’ll just stay till we can go back. Could be a year for all I care!”
The coffee and cake and conversation is like being at home. Very odd, in the hot sunshine on the slopes of Mount Kenya. I’m remembered by the young women who run the coffee house. I was here two years ago on the way to and from Ethiopia, a country now closed, not by coronavirus but by serious ethnic unrest. Seems I was lucky to choose 2019. I couldn’t go there now; the border up at Moyale has been closed for a long time. Volatile African politics. It’s best to do things when you can on this continent.
Taking my leave, I ride on down the sweeping hills towards the enormous vistas of endless desert. Up above here, it’s fertile and I love the washed-out colours of the soil. I stop several times to take photos. Africa presents so many apparently limitless landscapes. Vast skies arching overhead dusted with clouds of many densities, and the endless views that fade to an uncertain horizon. Mountains rise from the misty spectacle, panoramas that just go on and on as far as the eye can see. It’s magical, this view of the entire north of this huge country, from here amongst the last pine trees and green fertility. I crossed the desert below two years ago. It took endless patience to ride the 500 broiling kilometres, nothing to see but sand, rock, sky and camels grazing on nothing; the horizon bent with the Earth’s curvature. Burned rocks, black and purple, sitting on red sand; a few hopeless habitations on the way: places where the daily grind is fetching water from wells, sometimes several kilometres away. Water to sustain short, arid, desperately hard lives. It was a wonder to me. What is it like to be condemned to this landscape as home? The more I pondered the hot, relentless desert, the more I decided that maybe my plan of riding to Marsabit, half way to Ethiopia, is unwise! Burning up for 250 kilometres one way, just to burn up again coming back. Why? Because it is there. A rotten reason to bake to a crisp for 300 miles once again. Last time, I had to do it to reach the Ethiopian border… No, I decide, this time instead I’ll turn west again and cross the desert back to the highlands. That’ll be cooking enough.
On the way, though, down in the desert, I visit Rebecca, a remarkable Kenyan I have known slightly for twenty years. On the borrowed motorbike that year – 2001, the year before I brought my own African Elephant from Cape Town to the far north of Kenya – I met Rico and his sister, brother in law and cousins at Archers Post, a godforsaken outpost in the Samburu desert. They were on holiday with Rico, a time that coincided with my visit.
Rebecca is one of those women Africa needs so desperately. Disgusted by the way the men treated their (frequently much more driven) womenfolk, Rebecca started a women’s cooperative that went from strength to strength and is now an important local attribute and attracts the attention of the outside world. Rebecca is asked to speak at world conferences about the empowerment of women. She’s also very much respected by the women of this region, although the men hold her in some suspicion, resenting her position of power. Withdrawal of sexual favours was just one of the weapons that was brought to play to force the men of Archers Post into line! The women formed their own tourist village, guest house, built their own highly regarded school and forced a level of equality on the men that is astonishingly unusual in Africa. They sponsor destitute children, support families and raise education for girls, running their business as a cooperative.
I arrive, sweating now I am in the low desert country where elephants and crocodiles roam according to the roadsigns – but I am more likely to see cows and goats. I impress myself by recollecting Rose, the cheery receptionist’s name. I am warmly welcomed back, but Rebecca has broken her leg – twice in two months. She’s a heavy woman and now sits in thick plaster, a treatment for which she had to pull in favours from one of her high official women friends in government – as the doctors were all on strike in Kenya a couple of months ago. Rebecca’s some sort of relation to Rico’s late first wife Anna, a Turkana woman from the deep deserts to the north of here. I bring greetings from my brother in Kitale while Rose sorts me a banda – a thatched round house facing the river that is now a series of muddy brown puddles. It does have crocodiles though, although none are visible here, not a place to wander at night! In the rainy season this drying trickle that disappears into the Somali desert somewhere, runs wide and fast. Not now.
There’s been some trepidation in my mind about returning to Rebecca’s women’s guest house. Last time I was here was employed one Jessica. I misjudged her reaction when I gave her a gift of £7 on leaving. She’d been friendly and I was sorry for her as she was hundreds of miles from her son and daughter, working here through some contact she had made, to earn money to send home. Unwisely, I gave her my phone number as I left. Jessica obviously thought that £7 was tantamount to a proposal of marriage! I received no less than 18 text messages and missed calls over the next days, addressed to ‘my love’ and ‘my dear’! I even had a Valentine! It’s still a big joke with William and Adelight. Thank god, Jessica doesn’t seem to be here now…
Many women in Africa clutch at the straw of finding a mzungu. They know that we do not abandon children, as so many men here will do, leaving the women with sole responsibility for their upkeep and livelihood. There’s a desperate dream to find a mzungu husband that defies logic. What possible deal would it be for the mzungu? To take on Jessica’s two unseen children? To marry someone with whom one has no intellectual or emotional connection? Maybe, of course, that is pretty much the business deal they already suffer with the men they marry – or who father their children, for whom they accept no responsibility?
The ‘proposals’ I receive are many and various, like the woman outside the Kitale supermarket who ran into the street calling that she ‘needed’ to marry me and had ‘her own business’. A businesswoman, she had her fruit stall on the supermarket steps under an umbrella.
Why do I do these things: ride 100 miles across the remote northern deserts on the worst track imaginable? It’s a rhetorical question of course. I do it because it frightens me! And I do it for the elation that I feel getting to the other side, beating my anxiety, five astonishingly bumpy hours later. I’m anxious about these journeys; I’m on my own, many miles from help, the world’s worst mechanic.
And of course, I do it in the vain search for eternal youth too! I must challenge myself. I can’t help it…
At the other side, I feel buoyed up that I CAN do it, and did do it! My, it was hard work and the roughest trail I’ve suffered for a long time. My Mosquito and I make a good team. Perhaps the little blue bike is my second favourite, after my Elephant. We have fun together and I appreciate the lightness and versatility on these rough trails. I can dance about and correct our trajectory, even on soft sand and ruts that may have thrown me off a heavier machine.
The first half of my ride was corrugated like a washboard, fit to shake the teeth from my head – hours of it. There are two choices: ride like a man possessed and skit over the tops of the corrugations, or ride at 25mph and suffer the vibrations. In my circumstances, I decided wisely to go slow and shake. Not easy to shake the teeth from MY head, of course; they’re screwed into my skull, but I reckon my Polish implantoligist did a good job!
These desert tracks are old and well established, but not heavily used. Boda-bodas trade between remote, crude villages and inevitably, sparse matatus strain and bounce their passengers and loads across the desert. It’s dusty and rocky. Spiky acacias and scrubby bushes cover the ground. The track winds between, and later over, dry hills into a mountain range. This isn’t sand-dune desert like most of the Sahara, it’s just dry scrubland that stretches over so much of East Africa. Everywhere, people scratch a living from this arid landscape. Numerous flocks of goats scavenge the last life from the place. How the cows, the ones with the hump of fat on their shoulders, find enough sustenance, I cannot tell. I pass flocks of camels, attended by herdboys in beads and colourful wrapped cloths. Often they are bare-chested, with a couple of crossed strings of beads against their conker-polished skin. Some have spiky ear decorations, many beaded bracelets and anklets. They are the National Geographic image of ‘Africa’. Extended ear lobes, beaded topknots and bright cloths wrapped about their waists above their knees. They carry tall spears and swish herding sticks and look proud and exotic as I pass, sometimes a flash of dazzling teeth in their smiles, colourful, extravagant, endlessly eye catching. A sense for me that I am in a place where time has stood still and culture is paramount, despite the ubiquitous mobile phone clutched in be-ringed and beaded hands. I carefully ride through a herd of fifty camels, gangly youths trotting beneath mothers. The camels look scandalised at my intrusion. I laugh. I ride beneath an imperious camel head; it looks down in disdain; a look of anthropomorphic haughty contempt that camels do so insultingly. I imagine her snort of disgust as the mzungu rides under her chin. I am riding on footprints the size of dinner plates, dust skittering between their ridiculous legs, the babies out of scale, all legs and inelegance, trotting beneath pendulous tails of their mothers. It’s such fun. I am overcoming my fears. I am in the northern deserts of Kenya, less than a degree north of the Equator. I could be locked up in my home, with rain lashing the windows in half-dark. But I’m squinting in the desert sun, riding amongst ridiculous swaying camels. Life’s great if you go out and meet it head on!
I’ve an especially fond image: I stopped in a scattered village for a mug of chai, causing a stir. Two cheerful local boda-boda riders pulled up at the same rudimentary cafe. One of them was dressed in local tribal costume: beaded bracelets much of the way up his arms, ear decorations and short sarong-like cloth at his waist. Tucked in the folds of his cloth was a traditional club and a long knife; a pink plastic mirror hung on a ribbon from his waist. Clutching his phone, he climbed off his battered but equally decorative Chinese motorbike with a totally bald front tyre and greeted me with a grin and the fraternal link between bikers the world over – even a mzee mzungu and a virile, exotic Samburu warrior with no war to fight.
You have to go far these days to find the tribal, cultural Africa of the picture-books. Big game too. It’s all been subsumed into the polyglot grey culture of consumerism, multinationals, cheap TV and social media. You have to invade the more inaccessible parts of the earth to find the last vestiges of cultural tradition.
It was a disgustingly hot, sweaty night by the sluggish river at Archers Post. Mosquitoes whined, despite the net, as I perspired into the pillow, all the while, through those doubting hours of the night, apprehensive of the ride I was to take to Maralal. Sleep was light, not really coming refreshingly until the before-dawn hours when the night cooled. Oddly, though, the humid heat presaged a day of grateful cloud that ended in pounding desert rain. I didn’t expect THAT. With rain, the tracks turn to mud, slippery, slithering mire. Fortunately, by now I was on the final forty kilometres to Maralal, a place abandoned by the world.
Maralal is in the middle of nowhere. From here I can take two roads out, north or south. Even I know not to challenge myself with the track to the north, 250 kilometres to absolutely nowhere on the shores of Lake Turkana. My map shows a petrol station half way, but nothing else. It’s just sand. Not a place for an ageing mzungu to go alone. Pity, as I am sure the scenery is amazing. When you get to the lake, there’s no way out but another 250 kilometres of empty desert. These are extreme places. So I’ll go south and accept limitations!
Maralal is not a pretty place. Because the new road to the south is being built, to connect the town to the rest of Kenya, every broken-tarred town road seems to end in a large heap of earth. Grey skies and rain showers don’t add any attraction as surfaces turn to clayey ooze and the sunlight morphs to dull gloom. There’s a Wild West, Last Frontier, End of the World feel to the place, half built and half demolished, empty tracts of scabby grass and dust interspersing the crude buildings of the town. It’s a town of 21,000 people, apparently unplanned and unstructured. A hundred rain-stained shacks and basic shops sell the same utilitarian things, sold Africa-over: plastic goods from China, secondhand clothes, tired-looking fruit and vegetables, plastic shoes, soap and ugali flour, and countless mobile phone booths with their glittery accessories and consumerist temptations. Hundreds of boda-boda boys and men wait at every corner, scraping an existence with their broken machines, that few of them own for themselves. It’s difficult to imagine Maralal’s reason for existence, unless it merely developed around the national reserve that brings the more determined tourists? Of whom there are none at present, except me.
I saw a great deal of Maralal, looking for an acceptable place to sleep. That I found at last in a new hotel without a signboard that I passed several times. How do these places survive? I’m the only resident in the guest book, in a lodging place of fifty rooms or more. Still, I’m not complaining as I have a huge room with two giant windows looking over unoccupied muddy scrubland acres in extent, on which a few boys kick a small football. At under £14 I am content.
As I write, with a Tusker in front of me on the roof of an empty hotel, overlooking this scruffy town at the end of the world, a magnificent eagle hurtles on the wind, swooping back and forth within feet of my beer glass. I’m yawning as if it’s midnight. It’s not even seven yet…
It took me about an hour, and that was stretching my interest, to ‘do’ Maralal on Monday. By now much of it had turned to a sea of mud from overnight rain. Heavy clouds glowered on every horizon and what looked unattractive in the dullness of a drizzly afternoon took on a depressing air on a wet morning. A look at the forecast on the intermittent internet, weak signal and frequent power cuts, suggested patience and a day holed up in this not very diverting town. Rain all around and a cool day here at Maralal’s near 6000 foot altitude, up from Archers Post at 2750 down in the desert. Biking in rain and riding on mud is unappealing. And in Maralal I actually had a pleasant room.
Lowering skies hang heavily overhead, weeping gently. The colour drains from the African scene. I wander a bit aimlessly, unable to find much to interest me. The town is full of churned mud, puddles and earthy drains filled with litter and debris. My shoes pick up red muck; I pull my jacket tight in the morning chill breeze, but then sweat in the humidity that is never far away as the inherent warmth of African air makes the morning uncomfortably muggy. I suppose I am searching for somewhere I can relax in non-muddy, undingy surroundings and watch the world go by – a coffee shop would be ideal! But this is end of the world rural Africa, hardly cosmopolitan. The best I can hope for is a plastic mug of sugary chai and a plastic Chinese patio chair in a grubby shack with customers’ discarded goat bones on the floor. I walk the streets; everyone stares. They discuss me as I pass but return eye contact with a friendly wave and smile. Most of the white folk who come here – and there are none this year – ride through in guided safari vehicles on their way to look at game and adventure into the extensive deserts on the trails that lead to nowhere much, until you reach the shores of Lake Turkana, where there’s not really anywhere else to go. These are tribal lands with colourful people existing in the most inhospitable landscape, transient herders with their goats and ragged, caked-wool sheep and camels. Out there they live in dome-shaped manyattas built from sticks and straw, sometimes covered in any scavenged fabrics they can find – valuable pickings being canvas from old truck covers, woven plastic sacking and black polythene. Up nearer the lake the manyattas are even more simple – just sticks and grasses formed into small spherical homes that dot the desert. I see a few remnants of these cultures here in town: some older women wear their traditional beaded discs around their necks, shoulder-wide bands of colourful beads, with earrings, wrapped in coloured cloths, with shaven heads – topped off with a blue surgical mask hanging form their ears. Not many men in town adhere to any cultural tradition: they’re mostly clothed in Western hand-me-downs in which gender-based fashion gets adapted into a sort of mix and match of practicality and choice. It makes for bizarrely striking garb.
Outside town, a half hour walk away, is the Maralal Safari Lodge. It’s in a corner of the National Reserve. I stayed there once – when such places were affordable. Now it’s been taken over by the local authority and is four times my budget, but scruffier and less maintained than when I stayed a memorable night twenty years ago. I remember the hot bath, with water heated by an aromatic log fire outside my cabin, and waking in the morning to watch zebras outside my window.
The animals are still there around the lodge. £1.50 worth of spiced tea seemed a cheap rent to pay to sit – the only guest – on the verandah and gaze at many zebras, warthogs and antelopes grazing and cavorting a few yards away. Monkeys crept close, their eyes on the sugar packets on my table. Zebras are common here, I saw several yesterday as I rode that rough trail, and a few antelopes too. But game animals are almost all confined and corralled into fenced parks – except in the extreme regions like those to the north of here where they roam undisturbed by encroaching man, farming and an expanding populous. It’s rare that I see game animals unless I am on a public road that traverses a game park or natural reserve. I did see some ancient elephant shit on the road through the mountains yesterday. It was more common twenty years ago. Now all I am likely to see is chugging overloaded boda-bodas, numerous herds of thin cattle and marauding goats. The Chinese boda-boda has infiltrated every remote corner now with their fumes and noise and irritants non-existent two decades ago.
Out in the remotest parts of the desert scrubland through which I rode to Maralal the track sides were carpeted with plastic. In town discarded plastic is like confetti after a wedding. It fills the gutters, dangles in hedges and thorn bushes, gets ploughed into fields, blows the grassless acres of muck between scrappy structures. It fills rivers and streams, ponds and lakes. Despite Kenya’s well-intentioned symbolic and early ban on plastic bags – well before most Western countries – all goods are still wrapped in plastic: every manufactured item from China, every loaf of Kleenex tissue bread, every drug and drink, even many a meal I am served comes under a coating of clingfilm, and all are addicted to soft drinks and fashionable bottled water. Now all this litter is joined by the current scourge of discarded face masks. No one is aware of the disaster of plastic pollution, of plastic poisoning soil for centuries to come, internally strangling their cattle, being imbibed into our bodies – and even now with minute granules being found in unborn foetuses. I ride along in a shower of plastic wrappings, bottles and packaging tossed from bus and car windows. Modern life in Africa.
Wikipedia says candidly of Maralal, in a pretty accurate put-down: ‘Accommodation is cheap and lacking any sophistication, but improved roads heading to Maralal from the south should be completed by 2019, at which time tourism opportunities might improve.’
It’s now 2021. The ‘improved’ road heading to Maralal from the south is still quite a stretch from town, slowly making its way north. Give it a year or two more and the wonder of 2019 might be witnessed. Tourism opportunities really need a few more attractions, however… It’s a dull town in the middle of nowhere.
The attraction of a roaring log fire in a large grate in my bedroom was enough enticement to ride an extra fifty miles more than I would have liked when I left Maralal on Tuesday. It made for a long day: a ride of over two hundred miles, a quarter of it on rough tracks and uncompleted ‘improved’ roads, back and forth over the Equator several times once again. But I love to stay in the old colonial bungalows at the Kaptagat Hotel and knew I would appreciate (as I am certainly doing as I write, beside a roaring log fire with a couple of bottles of Guinness, my bed ten feet away) the luxury of this ironically very basic accommodation, with the famous candlewick bedspreads and antique thick cream woollen blankets. It just makes me smile! At 8000 feet, 20 miles north of the waist of the world, I am content. And probably slightly pissed…
Such extremes exist in this part of the world. My ride south from Maralal was one of the most boring landscapes I have endured in Africa; a sort of high altitude tundra of scrubby vegetation and stunted, thorny trees. A heavily overcast sky did nothing to enliven the scene, brushing a grey pall over the endless high plain. ‘Beware of animals crossing’, said hand-painted signs here and there, causing me to watch for at least some antelopes. I know the more exotic game is behind fences now, but beyond numerous zebras and a few domesticated camels there wasn’t so much as a squirrel to be seen. Zebras were stained by the red dust and recent rains, their white stripes dulled, but even so they make a wonderful sight, even to eyes jaundiced by the grey light. If only zebras were as elegant as their cousins, the horse, they would be amongst the most striking animals on earth, but they have a dumpiness and rotundity that reduces the lithe form despite the stripes – every zebra with its individual tightly fitted, graphological coat.
And later, one of the finest rides. Through the tall dark forests of dense conifers poured across the high mountains above the Rift Valley, a sweeping road climbing into airless heights, where the populous wrap themselves in thick coats and woolly hats. Ten miles away, often less, we can swelter in the depths of the valley; the road climbing to 9000 feet with occasional vistas revealed of hills rolling to the southern horizon or of the vast depths of the Rift misted far below.
There’s a long-cut I could have taken; a trail that would have cut a hundred miles from my journey It’d have been more interesting, although rough riding for about fifty miles. As is often the way at the lower end of the Kerio Valley, I was warned off. The Pokot tribe is one of the more troublesome in Kenya, untamed and aggressive. Every time I get to their homelands, I am advised to avoid them; there are constant warnings of fighting and killings, ambushes and shootings. Tribal wars of old are replaced by banal cattle rustling. Raised on doubtless stirring tales of intertribal battles and skirmishes, maybe the exotic young men no longer have ways to prove their honour and virility, except by stealing cattle of their tribal neighbours. Recently, 17 young men shot each other to death along the dirt route I would have taken. Reckoning that locals know best, it seemed wise to accept their advice. I went the long way round, on mainly tarred roads. Impressive roads by any standards but ones I know well.
Chilled by the altitude, I stop for chai on the curling way down from the heights. In a short half hour I will be grateful for the warmth of the valley bottom, stripping off my outer jacket that I’ve worn since leaving Maralal, despite the energetic parts of the rocky road. “Have you any snack?” I ask the shy young man who comes to serve me in a garden of a tea house obviously designed for the tourists who just aren’t here. “Any samosas?”
“We have sausage…”
“OK, two sausages and African tea!”
He comes back a few moments later. “Tea with milk? Or black?” He seems to be persuading me to the black option.
“No, white, please…”
“Will you wait? We have to milk.”
Most of the milky tea mixture he brings in a chrome teapot with no knob, was in the cow minutes ago, out at the back of the compound. Accompanying it are two faded chipolatas on a saucer. Living it up on a mountainside somewhere on the edge of the Rift Valley. Life’s colourful.
I feel as if I have slipped back to the 1950s, in the Kaptagat Hotel with its tin-roofed bungalows and old gardens. It’s charming, perhaps my favourite hotel. Hugged a welcome by the two Ellens, and welcomed by all the staff like an old friend – as their mzungu, since I am the first white tourist since I was here last year – I feel at home. Ellen tells me she is away to visit her mother tomorrow about 40 miles away, so I give her 200 bob. “Buy something for your mother, and it’ll help with the fare!” She’s very touched and deeply grateful for the £1.50, perhaps what she earns in a day’s work. “Oh, I will buy her sugar!” Ellen shows me that she has my ‘contact’ since I was here before, but I have changed my number since then, so we go through the formalities of ‘exchanging contacts’ – now an important African ritual. She hugs me goodnight as she’s off early tomorrow. I sit and eat the greens from her shamba by the log fire.
Later, lying in bed, beneath the infamous candlewick, the room is lit by firelight. The hearth is almost thirty feet away in the huge room but it’s warm, there’s no wind tonight and it’s silent outside. Really, who could ask for more?
Only a good night’s sleep after a very long ride…
Awash with chai I sit at the garden table beneath tall cedars swaying in the stiff wind. The weather is cool, but I am at 8000 feet. A bright yellow-breasted weaver bird cautiously jumps onto my breakfast plate, pushed across the small table. I remain absolutely still as it pecks at the crumbs of chips. It’s already 10, I slept until nine this morning under the candlewick with the fire glow across the room. Soon I’ll set off. I’m only going as far as Kessup once again, to see William and the village for a couple of nights on the way home to Kitale. This wasn’t quite the trip I had anticipated; I didn’t get to the coast and I rode long, long days in some quite tedious landscapes. But today I know, I will make up for that as I take – yet again – the steep trail down the wall of the Rift. It’ll be warmer too. Time to leave the weaver bird, back on the table, even as I write, and face another day in Africa.
The old Kaptagat Hotel is an equal attraction to that steep trail into the Kerio Valley, the one that drops 5184 feet in 12 miles and 18 hairpin bends of rock and dust. I can’t resist returning to Kessup this way, even if it means I must chug and curl my way back up almost another 3000 feet to reach the Kessup plateau. It’s such fun even though I must have taken this trail at least a dozen times, up or down. I love the space and freedom, the great steamed vistas across this vast valley, the bottom hazed and indistinct today. I ride down at not even 25 miles an hour, savouring the views, the freshness of the air – as it warms up with every metre I descend – the joy of being in this giant landscape. The road’s been graded a bit, so it’s not quite so bumpy some of the time, but there are still plenty of obstacles to make for a diverting journey. At last I am on the white sandy track in the depths of the valley, which I must follow several miles to the tar road that sweeps and curves through the valley bottom amongst the finest mangoes and apiaries. It’s hot here, the wind hitting my face as if from a hot fan as I ride. I’ve removed my outer jacket now, that I had donned on the chilly heights as I rode to Nyaru at almost 9000 feet.
I turn into the tar road. Children are coming from schools. African children, even small ones, walk miles to and from school. Cotton uniforms in their school colours, shorts and skirts and shirts, schoolbags over their shoulders. They wave excitedly and chorus, “Mzungu, Mzungu!” as I pass. I avoid a hundred goats and cows wandering the tar, a small child – not at school – standing with a herding stick watching me pass.
And so up the winding road that climbs the valley walls, up to Kessup, ‘my’ village after all these visits. A welcome from the young women who run the guest house: my key is ready; a blanket has been put in my room to replace the concrete block heaviness and density of the bed covers. How can anyone sleep under these thick heavy duvets? It’s the best part of 30 degrees here.
Later, William joins me. I slipped past his shamba without his noticing, so I’ve had a chance for a brief, quiet rest. But it’s beer time now and supper is being prepared. Tonight, late as usual, with William hopping up and down in irritation that the meal is later than promised – for he likes his punctuality, does William. The cook prepares greens that William bought when he heard I was on my way, rice and mbuzi – goat meat. It’s tender for once. This cook is the best they’ve had here. But it’s a meal for a family, as always. So we call the three girls who work here, Vicky, Gladys and Millicent, to eat with us. They are respectful, disciplined young women, who don’t earn much and often supplement their very basic rations with returns from the few diners. William and I enjoy their company. One thing about William is that he drinks his beers, eats his supper and then leaves, without ceremony! It suits me, for I too can retire to my room and an early night. As I close my door I am aware, rather than see, the enormous valley right in front of me, where I stand on this ledge above the 3000 foot drop into darkness. A dark yawning void right at my feet. The Great Rift Valley of Africa.
“We will walk a long way today!” declares William as I finish my breakfast pancake and omelette at a plastic table in the garden with the view in front of us. A huge raptor circles and cries above us. “We will go where I told you last time. To a village right along the edge of the valley, over there.” He points into the distance to the north. “You see that hill? The long one, and another beside it? We will go to the hill beyond that. If we make it…” he qualifies the prospect in case I’m not up to it. We both enjoy these long rambles. William is a very sociable man and loves to meet his neighbours, and the mzungu in tow adds a certain exoticness to his introductions. I mean, HE has volunteered today’s destination. He could have suggested we walk in the village just below.
We set out on what will prove to be about ten kilometres in each direction. We will walk for five hours on the red dirt tracks that wander through everyone’s shambas on the hillsides. We’ll meet dozens of people, exchange pleasantries and explain who I am to those that don’t already recognise me; we’ll be accompanied by calls of, “Mzunguuuu!” from hundreds of children, many of whom are so far away I can’t even see them. I wonder what would happen if I shouted, “Black man! Black man!” at every black-skinned person I met in Devon? Not that there’d BE many, but I’d probably be arrested and accused of prejudice! Here it’s my constant companion: “Mzungu! Mzunguuuu!” And I love it! It’s so endearing from these delightful, excited children. How could I resent it?
Evans (an oddly popular name) is planting vegetables by hand, in a shockingly large field. I’d be intimidated by the task, but for Evans it’s normal. He’s probably grateful for the opportunity – and the quarter acre. We fist bump and start a conversation; William is talking to Evan’s friend. We talk, inevitably, about the one subject every African knows about my homeland: the Premier League. Even if you don’t think much of football, this is the ONE thing the world knows about England. It may not be exactly English any more – the players often African in fact or multinational; the owners Russian oligarchs, Saudi billionaires, business investors – but from the point of view of much of the world it’s our greatest export – financially and culturally. Evans is amazed at my (guessed) prices of a ticket to a big game; at the price of land in England; that we have unemployed people and beggars: “Eh, I though unemployment was only in Africa! You have unemployed in Europe?” People here are shockingly unaware that we share many of the same economic and social problems. When you see the fiction they watch on TV you may understand why. It’s all glitz, glamour and consumption. The American Dream – one of the biggest fantasies ever created.
William and I walk on, meeting and greeting. Fortunately, he enjoys this as much as I do. “The goodness with you is, you enjoy the same things.” We’re comfortable company for a day like this, he answers my questions openly, and he’s here for the exercise, conversation and the people we meet, all of whom know him on the first half of today’s journey. He’s respected for his honest and affable manner.
The distant village of Siroch is our destination. It’s about 10 kilometres along the escarpment, I guess; it takes two and a half hours to walk there. The sun’s shining from high above, here at the middle of the planet; the day’s warm but a breeze tempers the heat a bit. It’s gentle walking, quite easy, along the hillocks and dips of the plateau with the 1000 foot of steepness to the rim of the valley above and the 2700 drop always visible to our right as we walk northwards. Half way, we can look up and see the viewpoint on the very edge of the valley that is revealed so dramatically as you drive out of the town of Iten. It’s where I first saw this geological wonder twenty years ago. I never expected then, as I rode down the curls and turns past Kessup, that I’d come to be so familiar with it.
At Siroch we lounge on dry grass beneath a shady tree at the village centre and drink sweet milky tea. William eats mandazi, a universal Kenyan snack, a sort of sweet dough fried in oil. It’s a bit like eating fried Kleenex with sugar, so I just break off a corner. I can feel the energy flooding back with the sugary tea. We’ve walked two and a half hours in the sun, although there’re clouds about today, casting black shadows on the valley floor far below. In the evening they will build to thunder and rain on the highlands above us, but we will be spared all but some light showers on the plateau. It does make for dramatic slate skies though. The sky is always so prominent in Africa.
We relax and sip the reviving hot tea from brown china mugs. William, always sociable, chatters with some village folk who’ve gathered. He’s not known here, we’re six miles from his community, but there are always relations to be made out; he’s a half sister, by his father’s second wife, married somewhere up on the hill above. I loll back and gaze around, greeting and smiling at people who come to stare at a rare mzungu. There’s a ring of tin shacks, all closed up. One has a crudely painted sign over the rough wooden door: ‘Kinyozi’ – that’s a hair salon. They’re everywhere, women weaving creations from ‘flame-resistant and dandruff free’ fake hair braids from glossy plastic packets made in China. Behind me is a dirty wooden shack with weld-mesh over the front opening and a rickety wooden step beneath the window. It’s a small kiosk, and the step is for the schoolchildren who now begin to appear. They can buy sweets one at a time for a few pennies.
The schoolchildren are neatly dressed – or they were when they left home in the morning, but children being children, their shirts hang out and their olive green cotton shorts and skirts and woollen jumpers are now dusty and ill-adjusted. There’s a mzungu resting in their village square! It’s incredible, something wonderful! They are so excited. Many are fearful and run back, giggling. Others stand in groups around the rough, scrubby area and just stare at the apparition. A young man, with whom William has found some familial relationship, however distant, and is sitting talking with him, says, “You are the first mzungu they’ve ever seen! That’s why they are frightened. No mzungus ever come here to Siroch!”
I pull my notebook from my pocket to remember this moment. As I scribble, the children creep closer, whispering amongst themselves, more confident now my attention is diverted. Now they are all about me, peering at the illegible scribbles, looking closely at my white hands and hairy arms, blue eyes and extraordinary difference. Scruffy dusty kids, they are endlessly endearing, as they gather bravely, green shorts and skirts, assorted plastic sandals, dusty knees, now laughing amongst themselves.
A young teacher joins us and greets me. This is my opportunity to actually talk to the many children in a tight circle around me. The neat teacher translates for them. They believe him: he’s their teacher.
“I am just the same as you!” I say. “Only I have pink skin and you have brown.” I show them my white palms. The teacher translates. The braver ones now touch my hands and stroke the hairs on my arms. “I have blue eyes and you have brown ones, but if you cut my skin, I bleed red blood just like you! I have two legs, two arms, ears… All just the same as you. It’s like there are brown cows and white cows! But we are still all cows!” The children laugh at the concept but they have seen that this strange being laughs with them too.
“Some of these children will not sleep today! They will be dreaming! It will go in the Guinness Book of Records, the day a mzungu came to their village!” laughs William as we walk away down the red hill. A group of children follows us and I tell William about the childhood game from home: ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. Every time I turn round to grin at the children just behind us, they stop in awe and stare. I love these moments. It’s why I come back to Kessup time and again, to be at one with these villagers.
Finally, the last children peel off to their homes amongst the greenery and we walk on in peace, the yawning valley now on our left as we walk south again. The views are more impressive this way, for the valley is now prominent, whereas when we walked to Siroch, we were walking with the escarpment in view. Now there’s a change in the light: the valley is full of bright light but up above the dark cliffs on our right heavy clouds are gathering. After we pass the Iten viewpoint, silhouetted on the cliff edge far above, we begin to hear thunder rolling about the highlands. “But it won’t rain here,” says William, who understands the topography of his birthplace. “Maybe just a light shower later.” He’s right. The wind whips up a bit, cooling the air, but it’s close now, oppressive and humid as the sun is blotted out by the slate clouds. But we make it home dry and William goes to attend to his cows. We’ll meet again at five. I end up with a cold shower from a useless unit that sprays the walls of the small bathroom, not me, and leaks everywhere. I daren’t touch the shower head; they are frequently live with 240 volts, twisted wires bound with insulating tape going straight into the shower head.
William takes his four Tuskers and I mistakenly take my Tusker and Guinness, then add another bottle of Guinness. All before the chicken, greens and chapatis arrive. Thankfully, William heads off home as soon as he’s eaten as usual. I retire to bed, tripping over the carpet, rather out of control. I’ve walked five solid hours on a hot day and am now boozed. But I can sleep for almost twelve hours as it’s only 8.20.
On Friday we walk the other way, south. “The goodness is, we like to walk!” It’s very hot again – I explain the meaning of ‘close’, for that’s what it is. There’s been rain up above the escarpment and it’s broiling down here. What it’s like in the huge valley below, I can’t imagine. “We won’t walk so far. We will look for the mead, and then come back at one and relax!” William likes his timekeeping and exact programme. “I was trained by British!” It turns out to be almost exactly one o’clock when we turn into the garden bar on the hill. We’ve been looking for mead for some visits now. I want to try it. This is a productive beekeeping region, especially the hot valley below, and there’s a highly potent local brew made from the honey. It’s fermented with the wood of some tree and is extremely alcoholic. I’ve been warned several times not to take more than a glass or I will be drunk. But we fail again to find it. “Come on Sunday, it will be there,” we are told. But I must be back in Kitale by Saturday evening. “Next time you are coming, we will find it,” says William, “but we must buy your green vegey-tables…”
We buy fifty bobs’ worth of saga, a small-leafed, rich green vegetable from William’s mother on her farm as we pass. About 80, William reckons, his mother still works her shamba. “She owns all this land,” he says, waving his hand across the hillside. “She’s one of the richest old women in the area. She still works hard and you can see she is still strong. But she will be afraid of you! Some of our old people – they don’t know better – they think all white people are carrying Corona. They believe you invented it, you whites! It’s what the media told us in the beginning to frighten us. It was irresponsible. They don’t know it’s worldwide. But it’s only some old people who believe this. Most younger people here in Kessup, they say, oh, Corona is gone now!” And on our walk I shake hands with dozens. There’s been no virus here. “Eat your greens!” William tells everyone. “There will be no Corona!” It’s a slight corruption of my advice that staying fit and healthy – as most are here, where there are not even overweight people, let alone obesity; no diabetes; no ‘underlying health issues’ (you tend to die first); everyone lives outdoors and there’s plentiful supply of Vitamin D – is the best way to reduce the dangers of the virus. But William’s mother keeps her distance and gives me only a perfunctory greeting this year, although she knows me well enough by now.
Once again we sit in a small village centre drinking tea with some locals, and the inevitable elderly woman who wants me to marry her. It’s a big joke. As she leaves I call, “See you at the wedding!” She walks away laughing loudly. The group around us joins in the familiar joke.
It’s one o’clock again and the primary school across the way, with its many broken windows and stained paint, closes for the day. Small children, about four, five and six, come pouring out shouting and clamouring at their release. Then the mzungu is spotted and pandemonium breaks out – again. It’s a real-life mzungu! These children aren’t afraid like those in Siroch yesterday. They’ve heard about these strange beings, maybe even seen one or two at a distance. But this one is real and here! They soon see that I am a friendly white giant and I walk along with a Pied Piper crew behind me, as they walk home to their compounds. They are brave enough to come and touch my hands, rub the hairy arms, and one small boy, the last to reach his home, even holds my hand for the last few hundred yards. Oh, what a joy it is to make such delightful little people happy just by being here! Abel has no front teeth and a grubby face, but a smile to light up the darkest day. Kyle has beads of sweat all over his face and the dirtiest nose and some little girls giggle and laugh their way home with us, endlessly cheeky, respectful and enchanting.
We fall in step with a woman whom William seems to know a little. She’s in her late 30s, I’d judge. She’s a bucket of avocados and a large green sack of vegetables. She’s marketing them sort of door to door, William explains. “Life is hard in Africa,” he says. He wonders why she didn’t go to school, because she’s obviously intelligent and should find better work than this. He quizzes her. It’s the usual story: she got pregnant at a very young age and dropped out of school, now she sells vegetables for a few bob, making enough – perhaps – for her rent and to feed her child. So many schoolgirl pregnancies, blighting lives. So common here. And the fathers long disappeared with no responsibility. Later, as we relax over a beer, a group of youngish men are raucously drunk at 2.00pm. I say to William, “And I bet their wives are at home working on the shambas, washing, cooking, looking after the children; and look at them…” One is so drunk he’s passed out on the grass nearby. Two of them will get on their boda-bodas and carry children several at a time home from afternoon school, and one has brought his car… They are all drinking wirigi, the locally distilled alcohol, or KK – Kenya Kane spirit, cheaper by far than beer and ten times more alcoholic. I’ve seen it so often: African men drinking to get drunk, leaving their women and families to care for themselves.
So, on Saturday, two weeks and 1500 miles since I set out on my safari, home to Kitale once more, my base in East Africa, where I am always so warmly welcome. I’ve returned in time for us to have a small celebration on Sunday – a barbecue, and I buy two bottles of sweet red wine that Adelight and the girls enjoy as a treat. On Monday, Marion will leave the house and enrol for her studies in hospitality at a college way down at Voi, on the road that frightened me enough to turn back last week. She’s a bright young woman, but needs stimulation. Maybe this will be just what she needs, for all the young people have lost a year to virus restrictions. Marion achieved a government sponsorship. She is quiet but intelligent; she writes well.
I go to town with Adelight to buy the things we need on Sunday for our party. Suddenly, there’s a violent rainstorm. This is an unsettled period, not really seasonal – but what are seasons now, with Climate Change? Nothing is certain any more, but when the weather alters in this largely subsistence economy, it has more effect on livelihoods and opportunities than it has in the rich countries, which largely wish these changes on this continent by their profligacy. Africa produces the least greenhouse gases of any part of the planet, and suffers disproportionately from their harm. Africans used to know and understand their weather lore. Not any more…