Twenty years ago I made my first visit to East Africa. By then I knew Ghanian life quite intimately and was known as a ‘son of Navrongo’ in the north of that West African country, complete with name: Navrossay, ‘Navrongo accepts you’. It felt like time to broaden my African horizons, to visit my old friend Rico, who by then had pretty much accepted that Africa was his life and moved to Kenya. He’d married Anna, his late first wife, a Turkana woman, and was living, with a brood of adopted children, in Lodwar in the far northern deserts of Kenya, near the eponymous lake, deep in the Rift Valley – not far from where mankind is thought to have first stood up and walked away from his Neanderthal ancestors.
That year, Rico arranged for me to borrow a motorbike for three weeks from a Dutch woman, an NGO worker. The following year, impressed as I was by my first experience of East Africa, I shipped my African Elephant – the 800cc BMW – to South Africa, by now clear of apartheid, during which time I refused to visit despite several invitations, and rode from Cape Town to Lokichoggio, another 150 miles north of Lodwar.
In those days, Lodwar gave an impression of a dusty desert town forgotten even by the Foreign Legion: a last outpost; a town filled with colourful tribesmen in feathers and beads, women with giant piles of bright necklaces that extended their necks, or more accurately, depressed their shoulders. Shaven headed, ochre mud head-sculptures, wrapped in bright cloths and living a nomadic life in spherical shelters of sticks and leaves, amongst huge herds of cattle and camels, this was a region that felt exotic and worthy of expeditions. It felt remote and the ‘road’ north from Kitale was the worst I travelled all the way from Cape Town – and all points between.
So, with my extra Kenyan days, why not ride north and see how two decades have treated this dusty outpost? The first part of the 190 mile ride is rather fine, dropping down from the forested highlands and snaking through the Marich Pass – ‘marich’ meaning narrow in Kalenjin. Then I emerge onto the flat Turkana Desert, that fills much of the northwestern corner of Kenya, to the mountains that line Uganda on the west, Sudan and Ethiopia in the north and Lake Turkana on the northeast, from where endless deserts stretch to Ethiopia and Eritrea into the Horn of Africa. It’s wild country, supporting ancient tribes of itinerant cattle herders amongst thorny acacia trees and limitless vistas of scrubby desert. It’s a long ride. And HOT. Here the landscape burns today at 35/36 degrees – in the shade, of which there’s NONE on a whirring piki-piki for the six-hour ride.
The descent after the regional town of Kapenguria is another of those impressive Rift Valley plunges. The road twists down through steep forested slopes, views north tantalisingly disguised by the trees below. Heat builds as I sweep downwards through the rich greens. I know I will miss this abundance in an hour or two. Through the winding pass the mountains close in sharply on either side, claustrophobically lidded by clouds of many densities, here where the topography makes for its own weather systems. A rock-scattered river worries below the road.
Then, apparently shot out of the mountain fastness onto the flat expanses that stretch for a thousand miles or more, a cheerfully friendly, portly elderly policeman waves me down – curiosity rather than hassle. Behind him, the desert spreads endlessly now I am suddenly out of the confines of the pass. He asks where I’m headed. “Lodwar!” I say. “On this BIG machine you’ll be there in two hours!” says he, vastly over-estimating the powers of my mere 200cc Mosquito, always in East Africa considered enviably large and fast – despite the reality of 45 or 50 miles an hour. I laugh, fist bump and ride on.
Now the road is flat. There’ll be hardly a hill between me and Lodwar, 113 miles north. When I rode here in 2001 and 2002 this was a notorious road. It was a broken trail of deep ruts and trail riding, over which – somehow – trucks and matatus battled, breaking the awful surface even more. On my borrowed Honda and later my trusty Elephant, I was lucky to make 20 miles an hour. When the occasional rains came to the desert, they pounded the surface for an hour or two, washed away the road in the storm dips, filling them with sand behind the rapidly evaporating water. The rocky dust turned to mud, churned further by traffic. Then the powerful sun dried it all again, jagged and broken. The track became increasingly challenging. Not surprising these outposts got little attention or investment. The road north here was also notorious for tribal unrest, ambush and robbery. Sometimes we had to travel in so-called convoys, that soon separated after the police posts as there was no attempt made to match vehicles. On my motorbikes I seemed to be left alone to fend for myself. Then, added to all these potential dangers, the road was often prone to large herds of elephants that, just occasionally, got irritated by the passing traffic.
Now. NOW! There’s a wide sweeping blacktop highway most of the way (although no one warned me of the 36kms of appalling corrugated dust after Lokichar, towards the end of my long day!). The trees and spiky vegetation is pushed back behind a blasted apron of dry grass and dust, 100 yards wide. I doubt an elephant comes within a mile of the rushing 4X4s and beetling boda-bodas. It’s not a busy road by any means; I’d ride for minutes at a time with no passing vehicles, but any elephant that wants to pass now won’t linger here on the hot tarmac and the strip of devastation caused by the Kenya Highways Authority. That and the fact that every road brings ribbons of population to settle in the harsh desert, plus vast herds of cattle and goats and thousands of roaming camels. The old road, that seemed such an adventure and kept me terrified for raging pachyderms just twenty years ago, is now a tarred tedium filled with boda-bodas carrying cattle herders and shaven-headed, many-necklaced wives between god-forsaken outposts of mobile phone shops and Chinese supermarkets and a pox of tin churches of every irrelevant dotty faith, these poorly educated people a ‘god-sent’ challenge for the rampant evangelists…
I stop for much-needed tea at Lokichar. It’s the only place of any size en route across the desert, but it only extends sandily a few hundred yards alongside the road, the scrubby desert stretching to the horizons behind. Everywhere out here is eternal desert. On the TV we watch the sentimental gushing of coverage of the funeral of the President of Tanzania, who was a corona-denier – but got his comeuppance and died of ‘unspecified heart failure’, which everyone knows was corona. But no one will go against their late president for fear of offence, despite the fact that his denial has cost tens of thousands of lives and delayed any preventative measures such that the country has a crisis – not that it is mentioned. African politics… How do these inept, authoritarian leaders get power? Well, of course, we know the answer – they manipulate and buy it from uneducated voters.
I fell into the usual conversation with the young men running the cafe: “I want to go to your country and get a job and make lots of money!”
“Do you not realise that many, many young people like you are unemployed in Europe? There are today ONE MILLION unemployed young people just in Britain! We have an economic crisis in which tens of thousands of families are relying on food-banks – charities – for sufficient food! Most of our shops have been shut for a year. A YEAR! Millions don’t have work! And not having work in Europe is MUCH worse than not having work here. Here you can almost always eat..?” The young men, mouths agape, nod. “If you have to, you can sleep out here on your porch..?” I wave my hand to the sun-beaten cement outside. They agree. “You have land, you can grow something at least to eat. You can build a shelter from local earth and sticks. You can survive!” They nod slowly, the penny dropping. “Most of US have NO land! We have to heat our houses. Even now, I am spending 16,000 Kenya bob a month to heat my house! It’s empty! But I can’t leave it to deteriorate. Our climate’s not like yours.”
“Yes, but we see you people come here. You are rich!”
“The few Europeans who come here are often the richest of our society, or like me, they’ve saved money by being careful and not buying Stuff. And yes, we seem rich because here our money is so big. This cup of chai is, what? 10 or 20 bob?”
“Yes, and in England I would pay about 350 bob for a mug of chai!”
The men gasp. No one’s ever explained this before. It’s why, in places like Turkana, one of the most heavily aid dependent areas in all Africa, I am greeted so often by an outstretched palm. White people are rich. White people distribute charity (even if much of it is ill-directed…) “But at home I live a bit like you. I’m rich here, but not at home!”
I guess I explain this ten or fifteen times a week. But look at these three young mens’ exposure to white people: they watch glitzy, materialist shite on American soaps and action films; they see adverts for everything they can’t afford – on the international channels that exploit their small spending power; they see white tourists, generally aloof behind the glass of expensive vehicles, travelling from one sanitised African experience to another. They don’t see the back to backs of Bradford, the slums of Birmingham or the North East, the desperate poverty of Pittsburg and the American South – no one makes soaps and dramas about those people: we all want the American Dream: the world for the taking. Of course, you and I know it doesn’t exist and never did. It’s a fiction, and a fiction used to create desire for more and more Stuff, in our skewed and sick economic model. Voices like mine are few and far between on the backroads and in the tea shops of Kenya and Uganda. No one understands that unless you have a rich daddy like the trumps of this world (no capital T: this way I can equate the man with the slang for farting), the only way to get Stuff and power is money, for which you need to work hard. Unemployment doesn’t fulfil those dreams…
“Hey! We never knew this! We thought all you whites are RICH!” the young men exclaim, slightly more enlightened about the Money Trees of the West. At least I’ve made them think; maybe equalised their view of one mzungu at least. “When I work, I am well paid,” I say. “But I spend most of it just living quite simply!” I now have the Kenya equivalents of my electricity bill, a mug of tea, my phone bill, council tax, a litre of fuel and a bag of rice on the tip of my tongue and can trot them out all these times every week. When I tell them the cost of my boots, they just stare and stare in horror. “Yes, that’s why I’ve made them last for almost TEN years!”
My mug of tea and a chapati cost me 26 pence…
With many cheery goodbyes, I mount up and ride away again on the burning journey north. Now comes, to my surprise and chagrin, the 36 kilometres of corrugated dust. Just when I was mentally winding down and looking forward to arrival in Lodwar. Thankfully, the final 40km are tarred again and I can relax the overheated muscles. I don’t like to arrive this late at destinations. I have a rule of thumb that when my shadow on the bike stretches across half the road, it’s time to be looking for shelter for the night. Now my shadow is bumping and flapping over the stones at the roadside. High time to be seeking a bed. It’s the worst part of every day – still, when I’ve been doing this for 50 years.
Now the sun is low and in my eyes and the entire centre of Lodwar is being dustily redesigned: the road is being renewed right through town. There are diversions and piles of earth, dust and dirt. There’s a thick fog and my eyes are gritty – but I have to find a suitable bed for the night. Quiet, clean (-ish, at least), security for my Mosquito, preferably an airy place or with trees – this being a tall order in desert Lodwar. I like to find a room upstairs if possible, for light and air and maybe a view. I’ll need a couple of beers (and how, tonight!) and somewhere nearby to eat. OK, so my instinct is extremely well honed by now, and generally I can tell from little more than a glance if I will fulfil at least some of my criteria. I try the Lodwar Lodge, but it’s dingy and dark, and probably impossibly hot. I politely ride away. It’s great, having the Mosquito for this search. I can turn on a sixpence and can divert down every road in town if needs must. But the sun is quickly sinking and I’ve only minutes to search and inspect. On the west side of town, just where the tarmac ends on the road towards Uganda, across the desert and over the mountains, I spot the Lodwar Cozy Inn. Looks passable enough to investigate. It has a gated yard and I can see bright rooms on an upper balcony looking west filled with orange light by the sunset. It’s 2500 bob, about on my top budget for breakfast as well, a bit under £17. Fiona shows me to a dull room on the first floor, looking east, away from the now searchlight sunshine, over concrete rooftops. “But I want light!” I wail.
“But the rooms on that side are 3000 bob!” she says, opening a room filled with sun to show me. “They are AC!”
“But I NEVER use air-con! I hate it, it’s unhealthy and I can’t breathe and I can’t sleep for the noise! I’ll just use the fan…” and I negotiate the light-filled room for the price of the dingy one. I overlook the bilious, vomit green paint but look longingly at the cold shower. Fiona goes off to buy me a couple of bottles of Tusker from a kiosk across the street. My needs are satisfied for now!
As I thankfully stand beneath the cool shower, I realise that my usual rigorous parameters have been slack: there’s a bloody mosque 100 yards away! Bah! But then I hear that the impossible is possible here in Lodwar: the muezzin is actually in tune. It’s not unpleasant when the prayers are
sung this way! Unlike the customary dreary drone that would send any god fleeing, this is atmospheric and rather exotic: a tuneful prayer to Allah, up there in the sunset for the muezzin. I’ll just have to remember the ear plugs for dawn… In tune or no, there are limits to the romance of travel in far flung corners of the East African desert.
I sleep well enough, considering the extreme heat of the night. The sheet’s a bit of a wet twisted rope by morning. I always cover my organs when I sleep beneath a ceiling fan. I’ve had stomach chills from this before now. My supper rolls about a bit in my guts. I walked down the road and ate a £1.35 supper with a bottle of ginger beer in a very inelegant restaurant. A few scraps of battered goat, some rice and kale, a dish of tomato salad: fuel. Walking the dark streets I was utterly at a loss to recollect anything of Lodwar twenty years ago. Was the smartly caparisoned Kenya Commercial Bank with its bright ‘ATM’ sign, really the one where I had parked my Elephant in the dust and queued for an hour to change two banknotes, in a bank that had no computer? Where had I lived in Rico’s compound: a brown tent set up for me by the children in the dusty yard? Where was the dusty road that passed through town to the deep flood dip between the brown hills that were little more than high piles of desiccated rocks? Where was the oddly attractive, end-of-the-world town? It’s a bustling small metropolis filled with thousands of boda-bodas and traffic. I’m sure it is no exaggeration to say there are probably 5000 boda-bodas in this small town now. It is estimated that there are about two million in Kenya and it’s now a powerful economic driver for the government. Riders are said to make 700 to 1000 bob per day (£4.75 to 6.75), but how this can be, with so very many of these smelly machines, it’s hard to understand. Over 20% of road deaths are attributable too… When I was here, mine was almost the only motorbike in town; in a day or two people knew who I was.
Lodwar sprawls in every direction and the flood dip – that I once witnessed flowing with strong brown water, enough to overturn lorries that inadvisedly tried to cross to save an overnight wait – is now bridged with a sweeping concrete span. The old lane that ran right through town is now the scale of a motorway. The dusty expanses I seem to remember, are filled with countless kiosks, shops and construction. And through it all come the half-finished new roads, dust and ruts, piles of earth and rubble, and smoking Chinese road machines.
I don’t recognise Lodwar any more.
On Tuesday after breakfast, I phone Peter, one of Rico’s mechanics twenty years ago when he ran his garage here. Peter kindly professes that he remembers me – but I expect it’s the Elephant he recollects really: the old bike was a celebrity in his own right. Still is, for me. We’d ridden twice across the Sahara – Rico would testify to that and tell his mechanics and family the stories; and then – in 2002 – I’d spent months riding through nine countries from far away Cape Aghullas, southernmost point of the continent to Rico’s garage.
Peter tells me where to find his house. These days, he just tells me to phone when I get close. He lives over the new bridge that sweeps above where the wide flood dip used to fill with sand. There’ll be no more delays here when the torrents flow off the desert in such dramatic ways. It used to be that lines of trucks and vehicles would queue for the water to recede, which it often did as rapidly as it rose, but sometimes necessitated an overnight wait. That was when the trucks took risks and were washed downstream with the big trees in racing water. I wouldn’t really believe it if I hadn’t seen it that day that I had to abandon my old canvas tent in six inches of water in the middle of the night in 2002 and escape into Rico’s family living room.
I ride over the ruts and bumps and loose soil of the major earthworks. They seem to be everywhere this year: more sale of Kenya’s resources to China. New roads shout ‘development’ to the world and get governments reelected. Next year’s an election year… For now there are signposts: they’ll be knocked over and rusted to illegibility a year or two past the election. I take the road to Karakol, 60 kilometres away on the shores of Lake Turkana. I’m going there after I visit Peter somewhere on this stretch of new development, where Lodwar is expanding over the dry hills. Peter’s not a Lodwari: he comes from somewhere near Kitale, where he went to school. I phone and tell him I am close, see him waving from a hundred yards up the hill. We meet and shoulder bump: it’s a greeting I’d forgotten, it’s very Ethiopian to knock right shoulder to right shoulder as you shake hands. I like the greeting, and it reminds me of maybe the most fascinating journey I’ve made in Africa: Ethiopia.
We chat for an hour in his house. It’s a simple structure of small rocks confined by wire mesh and sprayed with cement when he has money. “We don’t have building soil here, no clay, so we make do with what’s available!” Peter, like so many, is out of work, “…just some odd jobs here and there.” The pandemic has knocked everyone for six; the economy’s in a mess. Rico has taken Peter on one or two of his foreign contracts: he trusts Peter as a decent mechanic, and it’s not easy to earn Rico’s faith, so Peter must be knowledgeable, but now no work… His wife does, “Some small business in town…” That’ll be minor trading, buying and selling. Inside the door of his three-roomed house, Peter has a lock up cabinet that contains small food items for sale at a few bob each: spaghetti, cooking spices, sweet lollies, a tired cabbage. From a big container he dollops tiny quantities of cooking oil into plastic bags (single use, to later decorate the thorn trees and be ingested by goats). Ragged children come with coins as we drink tea, on errands from their mothers. One child actually rejects the cabbage. Not surprising, even though Peter peels off a few outer leaves to make it look fresher. So this is what Peter is reduced to, a trusted mechanic, quite well educated and intelligent: keeping shop for, I believe it’s actually his daughter’s small business, and watching Top Gear on a TV powered by a pile of car batteries and a solar panel on the tin roof. “I’d like to leave now and go somewhere else, but you know, the cost of moving…” When he came north into this furnace, there was more opportunity for a good mechanic. Not now. And few in Africa are ever taught to think as entrepreneurs, to create their own opportunities; and of course, for that they need capital. Most money goes on school fees for three children. Peter wants to send his son to technical school (the girls don’t appear to be going to be given that choice…). “He’s clever with computers. Graphics and so on. He wants a career in the media.” He and most of the rest of the young world… The shining beacon on that far, high hill: ‘A Career in the Media’.
He’s a nice chap, Peter. Urbane and conversational. I enjoy sitting in his big armchair. I could do without the distraction of Top Gear with the sound turned off, but this is Africa, where the TV is all important. Later in the evening, I am in a small eating house down the dark dusty street from my Cozy Inn when it fills up, right up, so that the populous can watch the news. Even though it’s manipulated by the government ‘media’ machine.
After an hour or more, I bump back over the desiccated rocky footpath to the road and turn north. I’m going to visit Karakol, down on Lake Turkana’s western shore. It’s a tedious road: small acacia trees dotting the dry land to the horizon every way; rolling hills with little growth. A few tribespeople are to be seen, some of the women in their many necklaces, with shaved heads leaving a small braided topknot, and wrapped in a bright cloths. I see very few of the peacock young men. Twenty years ago, they paraded the dusty roads of the town and particularly wandered the desert roads, proud and colourful, with ochre mud in their hair and beads, pangas and feathers to decorate their arrogant strutting, a herd stick across their shoulders, a small carved stool for a headrest that protected their elaborate head sculptures. The sticks and stools seem to have survived, but now it’s Premiere League strip and the normal curly hair. They still wear the wrapped cloth, and Turkana is one place where men still tend to wear shorts, but now mtumba and cheap rip-off football strip is the norm. Turkana is joining the polyglot, grey world like everywhere else.
Twenty years ago, collecting wooden spoons, I ventured out to some of the cattle herders’ nomadic villages of leaf and stick manyattas, here in this part of the desert, north of Lodwar. A young girl in full tribal dress wanted a ride on the mzungu’s piki-piki. I was astonished and delighted. It’s a strong, powerful memory that still makes me smile fondly: in her red cloth, beads and shaven head, a redolence of wood smoke and goat fat, we rode across a few hundred yards of sand, her friends shrieking in excitement, her arms around my waist in a vice-like grip. It was a one off, a rare occasion. Those people didn’t even ride in buses of lorries then: they walked miles and miles, and then miles. Now, like the rest of Africa, they are of the ‘Pick-me-there’ generation: they sit, squeezed four up, on derelict boda-bodas to come and go from their crude manyatta homes, listening to pop music from loudspeakers the size of drawing pins on their phones. I am happy I saw those things then. Few will ever see them again. In time, reading this account of my African travels will seem as remote as those romantic tales of an Africa known to Victorians. Of course, there’s NO romance in poverty, and I want their ‘development’ and a certain amount of modernity, but I DO regret the loss of more colourful traditions and individuality on the way. When they all want ‘A Career in the Media’, the world will be a dull, compromised place indeed… Now they need ‘airtime’ for their phones, clutched in hand, rather than tales of tribal derring-do round a campfire. Hey ho, the Way of the World.
The road to Karakol turns out to be so boring and hot that I doubt my decision. I carry on a bit. After not much more than twenty kilometres I come across the Chinese road machines I see everywhere in Kenya and Uganda. The road turns to dirt and dust, then severe corrugations. It’s still twenty miles to Karakol. I am going to view Lake Turkana, perhaps take a picture. That I’ll probably never look at: I know pictures of lakes, unless they have the Alps or something similar behind them, are not very interesting. I stop, climb a low, totally desiccated hill of dry black stones, take a couple of pictures of the landscape – that will also probably become rejects too. It’s just a huge lunar scape of minor hills to a flat horizon. Grey, with light clouds turning the sky a bit boring too. Back on the track, I turn my wheels south again and retrace my ride back to Lodwar. I’ve seen Lake Turkana several times. No need to sit here and fry for another forty miles just to get a mug of chai and look at grey flat water…
Back in Lodwar, I look for Rico’s old garage, and pass it twice before I recognise it. Somehow, it seems to have flipped to the opposite side of the road in my memory. It’s now a depot for the big Indian hardware company, Suam. His old house, with the round living room he built twenty years ago, seems to be a private hospital. Next door is a vast evangelical baptist church that made him see RED when they built it and disturbed his days with their ranting and noise. The airstrip is still in use, but more formally enclosed now. Nothing’s really how I remember it. Often, it’s better to keep memories as they are and not come back. I’ve a fondness for the memories of discovery and the essence of adventure that Lodwar seemed to hold two decades ago. Now it’s just another Kenyan town. The Turkana spirit has been driven away by the boda-bodas and mobile phone companies. It’s a shadow for me. A shadow of long-gone expeditions.
After a second broiling night under the fan in the Cozy Inn, I turn my wheel south again. There’s really not much for me in Lodwar, even though I’d planned to stay three nights. It’s cripplingly hot, three cold showers a day hot. I can find most of what Lodwar stands for in every other town in Kenya – in more bodily comfort. This could be Maralal, where I was two months ago. Honestly, it could be anywhere in the country. The ethnic uniqueness of this desert town has gone.
Rolling hotly southwards, I take my time. I’m only planning a couple of hundred kilometres today, back to Marich, at the foot of the mountains. I plan to stay there tonight, so I can take a minor murram road back round into the Kerio Valley. It’s a road I’ve never taken but I know it’s dirt, so I’d rather be fresh than attack it at the end of the burning ride across the desert. And I’ve those awful 36 kilometres of corrugated sand to suffer soon this morning, back to Lokichar.
By the time I reach Lokichar I am coated in fine white dust, thirsty and stewing in my jacket, helmet, gloves and big boots. But I won’t compromise on this safety, even if I am cooking slowly under the now overhead sun. It must be heading towards 40 degrees in places, with no respite whatsoever, just that white searchlight sun.
Tea! I stop in a one horse straggle of shacks and ugly concrete shops for a mug of disgustingly sweet tea. Anywhere else it’d make me gag with all the sugar, but I need some quick energy, so I check my revulsion. I take a chair to the concrete porch, watched by all and sundry. Not friendly but not unfriendly, just a sort of neutral curiosity. No one seems to be doing anything productive at all as far as I can see, just lounging about – existing. Some watch the opiate of television, an endless 24 hour sleeping draught. It’s STILL showing bloody Magafuli’s funeral from Tanzania. How long can they milk the mawkish sentiment of this foolish man who cost tens of thousands of lives in his country by exhorting the people to pray and inhale steam, rather than accept that some basic health measures may save the pandemic getting hold, as Kenya managed rather successfully? Now they are holding a five-day state funeral with thousands of (mainly unmasked) dignitaries from all over the continent – in the middle of an out of control pandemic in the country.
In my dingy cafe, people come and go, slopping on ubiquitous flip-flops from the brilliant sun reflecting up from the pale sand outside. A few children gather to stare at the sweating mzungu. It’s all aimless, and many idle folk giggle as they pass, somehow embarrassed not to be greeting me more openly. Maybe mzungus never stop here. English education will be low; motivation levels even lower, if the serving girl is an example, as she sits, head on arms dozing at a table. Four young people approach and try to sell me a new, boxed basic model phone. A consignment must have arrived in the village, and I suppose they’re on commission. Clutch at any straw, but I can’t believe everyone here doesn’t already own a phone; they’re as essential as sugar to these folk – more, perhaps, to some. Most of the idle young people are tall and skinny, the boys especially, with long calves and thin knees. They’re almost emaciated, they’re so slim. I haven’t seen a really fat person for weeks, many weeks.
But what do people DO here? It’s always a question I ask myself, for I need so much stimulation; it’s programmed in to me to be bored if I haven’t a goal ahead or present activity. No one has any tradition of reading: I’ve been looking for books to read for weeks on end, and had to resort to buying a couple on my iPad. I don’t like reading on a screen; I like to physically turn the paper pages, but here I’ve no choice: I found a total of about twenty five books in a Kitale supermarket, none of which I wanted to read. The only book I can find everywhere – I’m sure there are a couple of dozen for sale even in this god-forsaken disaster of a sun-bleached dead end – are bibles. They’re EVERYWHERE. Not that these people probably see their scruffy home as god-forsaken; not if you judge by the number of tin ‘churches’ competing for their money…
On again. Some bright spark has invented a clever device up here, where most families have to fetch water from distant bore holes or water sources – women that is, of course. Someone’s invented a rolling water drum. It’s the usual yellow 20 litre plastic container, but the clever part is a hole right through the centre, that means it can be dragged behind using a rope or length of wire. So simple: so damned obvious that no one ever thought of it until now. Even the children enjoy rolling their drums like yellow garden rollers over the sand and down the roads. Clever.
I pass the turn off to Turkwell Dam and a national reserve. As I ride, I pull my cheap phone from my pocket and check the time. It’s hardly even late lunchtime, and I’m only 25 kilometres from my destination. I turn in the road and go back. ‘Turkwell Dam 23km’, says the sign. I’ll go and see what’s there. I know it used to be a gorge, now dammed.
The road is good, tarred no doubt by the dam builders and well maintained. High steep mountains rise on my left, directly from the flatness of the desert. There’s a national reserve here, which means some control of the population, but I see only inevitable goats, big flocks of them tended by small boys as young as six or seven. It’s their family duty – while the women and small girls endlessly roll those water barrels. After 12 miles or so, a gate, a security guard. We negotiate. He has to call his boss – but he’s no airtime on his phone. I wonder what he’d do in a security emergency? Send a smoke signal? Oh well, his colleague, sauntering down the road with all the time in the world, has enough airtime to call the ‘manager’, and ‘Manager’ says it’s OK for the mzee mzungu (why do they always add the ‘old’?) on a piki-piki to ride up to the dam. I’m pleased, because I can see the road snaking back and forth across the step incline, hairpinning upwards dramatically. I want to get to a vantage point above this vast desert and look down. As I ride upwards, back and forth on the tight serpentines, I am quickly aware of the limitless desert stretching as far as the eye can see, a sort of dull green from the numerous thorny flat-topped acacia trees, dotted with shadows of the high white clouds. It’s so far to the horizon that it’s bent with the Earth’s curve, always a sign of extremes. At last the road turns in towards the mountain face and levels towards a high pass. As I breast the last rise I exclaim. In front is a big blue lake, ringed by low blue mountains, reaching across the range towards Uganda. It’s wonderful, especially here, after all the aridity I’ve seen for the past hours: a spectacular expanse of calm water, inlets and hills, all beneath the cloud-dotted blue of an African sky.
The lake is formed by the damming of a fine gorge, not more than 100 yards wide and maybe 150 feet deep. One side of the cleft is of smooth vertical red rock, the other a precipitous rocky drop to the bottom, which is perhaps no more than 60 yards wide. It must have been a wonderful entry to the mountain world beyond, but now it’s stopped by a big plug of curved concrete. I can walk across the narrow dam. A group of men are excited like small children, exclaiming that they’ve seen, “A BIG snake! BEEEG! EH!” at the viewing point on the other side. But it’s gone when I get there, probably frightened back to privacy by these men shrieking like schoolboys. Now they’ve gathered compatriots and are all heading back for another look. “It’s gone!” I say, a little deflated myself. I seldom, if ever, see snakes in Africa. I know they’re there but they always make a quick exit when they hear human life approaching, like almost all animals. The only danger is to come on one by surprise – and that’s difficult with snakes.
I ride back down the mountain twists and turns, enjoying the views over the desert that I crossed boringly this morning. Now it’s late afternoon and I need to find my bed for the night. There’s a long-established place at the foot of the mountains; I stayed there 20 years ago, sharing the last night of a school party from Gloucester! The place was set up by an Englishman, David, and his Eritrean wife. David died a few years ago, but his wife still runs the place. It’s billed as a ‘Field Studies Centre’ and hosts many school excursions – when there are visitors. Today no one has approached the centre, down its 900 metres of sand track, except goats. I begin to think it’s closed down due to lack of business this year. I ease open the gate with my front wheel. Everything is quiet; no people to be seen. I’m about to turn round when I spot an elderly woman in an easy chair under the many spreading trees. It’s David’s widow, still running the big centre. Later she says, “I can’t leave my husband…” waving a hand towards his grave. I’m the first guest for a couple of weeks. She says a Dutch couple camped then, and Indian families like to come from Kitale and Eldoret, but otherwise business is dead for the year. She’d like to visit her daughter in South Kensington, but can’t get there. She’s a son in Germany and a children in USA, all out of bounds for the foreseeable future. So she sits in her wooden chair and drinks tea calmly under the shady trees and stays with her husband of many years.
The guest house is still open, and she’s a really good cook, making Eritrean food – much like Ethiopian. We spend a congenial evening chattering about the changes we’ve seen in Africa, many of which we regret. She’s lived in many places around the continent. She’s watched the demise of tribal life, dress and crafts; the importation of alien cultures; goods from China, ubiquitous old clothes from the West, the fading of ethnic colour, the beating back of now controlled wild life. “The elephants, they still come when it rains, but you don’t see them by the roads any more. Not now it’s such a big strip of nothing…” In my mind I conjure an image of the bland road, wide as a motorway through the receding bush land I just crossed.
After my breakfast – a very substantial one of local millet porridge, three fried eggs (sunny side up, as my American friends would say, unlike the tedious omelette fries I eat everywhere), with vegetables and toast – Mama Roden, my entertaining, calm hostess, makes me buna. I’m thrilled; for me, coffee has never been the same since I drank Ethiopian buna, the original coffee: for the drink originated in Ethiopia in the 13th century. It’s thick and rich, boiled three times in a clay jug and served over sugar in a tiny bowl. It’s the BEST way to drink coffee in the world!
With fond farewells, I leave at about 11. I think I’ve quite a short journey today, just along the foot of the nearby mountains and round the corner, where I’ll turn south on a remote road and enter the neck of the Kerio Valley, and climb a dusty track up the escarpment and find my way back to familiar Kessup for a last visit this year.
For years people have been saying I mustn’t travel these remote trails at the foot of the mountains in Pokot country. The Pokot tribe have a bad reputation: they’re aggressive and quick to fight and there are frequent skirmishes up here. But I’ve a feeling it’s a case of Chinese Whispers, for no one who warns me so dramatically has never actually been this way. The fighting is all about cattle rustling from the neighbouring Turkana tribe. Recently, a battle between rustlers killed 17 men. It’s almost a traditional violence, a sort of tribal hooliganism, which notches up respect for those who clock up kills against the ‘enemy’. My hostess this morning, who knows the locals well, and is much respected by them, says, “If you get lost, ask the way. They are VERY friendly people here!” I’ll believe her, not the doomsayers. A kilometre from the guest house sand track, I turn off the main highway onto the forbidden tracks. People wave and return my smiles…
A few moments later the track, white dust and red rocks, crosses a narrow bridge and passes a big bend in a sandy river bed. It’s largely dry, just white sand extending across 100 yards or so. The river frets down through some rocks to one side. This is the river bed that passes the back of Mama Roden’s ‘Field Centre’, where schoolchildren from Gloucester explore the terrain. At breakfast she told me about the Chinese…
No one much trusts the Chinese people who come to Kenya. Everyone knows they have ulterior motives; they’re unpopular – plus they are unsmiling and not sociable. Those are sins in Africa. The Chinese keep themselves to themselves, send most of their money home and use their increased financial status to start businesses that locals could open if they had a little capital, and access to the cartels that the Chinese run amongst themselves over the supply of goods. No, they’re not well regarded: with suspicion, is about the best you can say.
Anyway, Mama told me the story of the Chinese businessmen who came – while she was away in Nairobi, for she is a bit of a local force of nature, with her intelligence and marriage to a mzungu intellectual for 40 years. The Chinese paid local people on the other side of the river – the side now denuded of trees – 200,000 Kenya shillings (about £1300) for the right to mine for gold on the property. Mama heard of it on the probably very active grapevine and hurried back to Marich, arriving next day by air and taxi. She came to remonstrate. A big argument ensued, between her and her community as well as the Chinese. To the local people the short term profit was manna. “But the chemicals they use to clean the gold are poisons! They will destroy your water sources!” she remonstrated with them, finally winning the day by showing the people the already discoloured soils. Then she investigated the ‘company’ and found it utterly bogus. She brought the law to bear; she knows the right people. “I will go to the President himself if necessary!” she told the fake businessmen. For now, she won the day. But there are few Mama Rodens around Africa, with the influence and nous to control the rampant Chinese, who know that pennies will buy their way in to all the resources of the continent. Sitting beneath her mature trees, drinking tea – “I never drink coffee myself. I have an ulcer…”, as I sipped my delicious buna, she unconsciously echoed my oft-spoken words: “What good did you ever see the Chinese do in Africa? They want power and resources. When did you EVER see a Chinese charity..?” China: the biggest threat to Africa, and now, in their newfound economic and political strength and self-confidence – to the very planet.
She’s small and slight, Mama Roden, an Orthodox Christian cross (with crossbars on the usual Christian cross) tattooed on her forehead, only really visible on her mid-brown Eritrean skin when the direct sun hits it. She wears the white woven shawl customary to the Orthodox Ethiopians, her pale grey hair scraped back into two tails tinted with orangey henna. I bet she’s influential around here, and very supportive of the local tribespeople. She brought her power to bear, she tells me, against unscrupulous ‘businessmen’ removing quantities of earth and rock for ‘road building’ from the property of one of the local schools she supports. I wouldn’t want to be the receiver of her wrath when she means business!
Despite its grand designation as the B4, the trail I am using after the river bridge, is an insignificant track through the bush. I squint in the sun reflecting uncomfortably from the pale red dust beneath my wheel. I have to concentrate: it’s rocky and full of surprises. Here and there I must splash through small rock-filled washouts, that probably rage when the rains come. On my right the mountains steadily rise towards the escarpment of the Rift Valley that they will become when I turn the corner into the neck of the Kerio Valley, that I love so much. These are foothills that presage much higher mountains that form the highlands behind; the ones through which I wound downwards three days ago from Kitale. I’m entering the Kerio Valley rather secretly here, just skirting the bottom of the hills, the endless valley stretching northwards from here as far as Jordan.
It’s a pretty obscure road, this B4. It meanders through thick bush, stunted acacias and scrubby growth. Now and again it wriggles through a remote village. It’s hot on the valley floor but the new growth on some of the trees, anticipating the rains that should have come by now, is bright and fresh. In places, the track threads through thin green woodland. The high mountains on my right become steeper. Even up there people are burning the scrub to make tiny semi-vertical fields to support the growing population. Something over 35 kilometres in, the road, such as it’s been, suddenly disappears. There are trees down and huge pits ripped in the ground by raging waters at some time. It’s an ugly scene, but impressive of the power nature has when unleashed. Trees are broken at the stumps, rocks everywhere. The trail twists and turns through rocky beds of small trickles and there’s scree everywhere to be negotiated. Vehicles, not that I’ve seen more than a handful in over an hour, have forged a sort of informal track through it all. I bounce and weave across half a mile of this devastation.
Slowly it dawns that this must be the site of the enormous landslide that brought disaster a year ago in West Pokot, the county in which I must be now. I recollect my moral outrage that I was forced to watch, on ubiquitous 24 Hour ‘News’ the inundation of a few streets of insured people in England, crying about their Stuff being ruined: endless sentiment about life never being the same; the inadequacy of ‘the Authorities’ in preventing the flooding in suburban England. Meanwhile, in West Pokot, where nobody cared because they were African peasants and no one had the cameras, whole communities were washed away in a gigantic landslide: even a dormitory of schoolgirls. No one was racing to their rescue: they’d have to rebuild for themselves here.
My trail rose out of the valley bottom, climbing slowly up a red dust hill between ruined earth and stick structures. One had been a tea ‘hotel’, others homes. The tin roofs have been salvaged, no doubt for replacement homes elsewhere in this ruined landscape. What do you do if your land is in the path of such a natural disaster? You rebuild in the same place and hope it doesn’t happen again. But the reoccurrence is increasingly likely. “Oh, that landslide was caused by deforestation on the hills. The people cut the trees for charcoal and then the roots cannot hold the soil…” explains Josphat when I stop for chai in the next village.
The trail rises slowly. I can see Josphat’s village ahead. It’s called Karena. I turn a corner to the left and suddenly, like a mirage, there’s a T junction with roadsigns, white lines and direction arrows – on a tar road! It branches off at right angles to my rocky, pitted, dusty, slithery track: smooth black tarmac disappearing up a long hill in classic perspective. It’s not on MY map! But then, there are so many roads, new and old, in this region and my map is small scale. I WISH I could source a decent map of this wonderful area: it’s my favourite part of Kenya, here around the Kerio Valley.
So I stop for tea at the ‘Midway Hotel’. Not sure where it’s midway from and to, but it’s a basic tea shop, painted hideous green with a plastic chair outside just made for me. Josphat is the owner, a wide welcoming smile, a cheery demeanour. Others gather. No mzungus come this way. Apart from any other reason, probably because the Chinese Whispers portray the region as so dangerous. So far I’ve met unremittingly friendly folk all the way.
“So where does this road go?” I ask, waving at the black tarmac.
“Chesoi! It’s tar all the way. But MANY bends!”
“But Chesoi is near to Kapsowar?” I was intending to head another 40 kilometres along the floor of the burning valley and turn right up to Kapsowar, a white dust road I took downwards on my first East African journey on the Mosquito. “Why should I punish myself? There’s a smooth road and it’s going where I need to get to!”
“Yes. MANY bends… How OLD are you?” The question always comes eventually. Maybe I should have a tee shirt printed with, ‘I am 71 years old’?
“But this piki-piki is a Special Gym!” laughs Rogers, one of the idle young fellows who’s come to chat to the mzungu – probably hoping for a conversation about the current state of the Premiere League… “Yes,” I agree, “good exercise, specially on these dirt roads! Keeps me young.”
Amidst a shower of waves and smiles – these people around the Kerio Valley are my favourites in Kenya, endlessly welcoming and friendly – I ride away. Uphill. On smooth blacktop. Wow. Soon the bends begin. This will be the most convoluted road of my experience in East Africa. It’s wound about the escarpment like a puzzle. The bends are 180 degree; the rises steep. The views, of course, are stupendous. Vast. Expansive. Endless. The valley recedes downwards. The road struggles up, dizzyingly twisting. The sun’s overhead, so there’s no sense of direction, but I know it’s going to be UP for a long time yet. The height of the mountains above assures me of that. The road’s not maintained very well and I see three cars and a smattering of boda-bodas in 25 miles. The mountainsides have collapsed onto the tarmac in confusions of rocks and earth in at least twenty places, leaving a narrow rocky track just about enough for a car to squeeze by. Some of the falls are so old they’ve been colonised by grass and bushes. I guess there’s just no local government money to spend on maintenance. Pity, after the incredible effort to plan and construct this very impressive road. In places long lateral cracks are appearing, threatening the surface to fall away to the next level. I stop often; it’s SO extraordinary – and I go LOOKING for roads like this! In one place I look down and can see no less than nine levels of road scratched through the steep scrub below me.
At last the hills level out and I am in high country. The valley’s misting now with distance. Up here I enter a wonderful landscape: on the valley side it’s cultivated and inhabited, with tidy shambas and a lot of round grass-thatched houses on small plateaux of pink earth; on the other side roll green mountains with mature trees and meadows that brighten the eye of one who’s just risen from the parched deserts far below. It’s a verdant, pastoral landscape of artlessly spellbinding views. Africa is SO surprising. I’d never have thought such beauty was here. It’s like a landscape from another century, as if I am winding through private Georgian parkland from a painting by Gainsborough – except of course for the excitement of the VAST Kerio Valley occasionally glimpsed below. Cropped grass licks at the very edge of the narrow road, pitted with potholes now – trimmed not by legions of ancient retainers but by ravenous cows and knotty-wooled sheep desperate for sustenance at the end of this extended dry season.
I twist and wind through this charming landscape, first one way then another, the bends sharp and close, shrubs pressing in, greens of every hue, sometimes blue or yellow flowers. Birds flit about and I find I am riding at 20 miles an hour for mile upon mile, stopping every few hundred yards to wonder at the delights of this very special place I have discovered, and seem to have to myself. It’s a place worthy of the overworked superlatives I avoid: awesome, stupendous, stunning. My spirit soars with the circling raptors out over the heights of the valley, filled with unseen up-currents. I LOVE the Kerio Valley, but I’ve never seen it displayed thus before – for now my road is teetering on the very brink of the valley. Turn left and I’d plunge 4000 feet down into that furnace of rising heat. I stop for the
umpteenth time. I just can’t believe what I am seeing. Some young men, inquisitive and uniquely friendly around here – this tribe of Kalenjins are delightful – come close and stand by my Mosquito. I turn and say to them, “I think this must be one of the finest rides in ALL AFRICA! It’s WONDERFUL!” My smile must tell them even more about my sense of thrill.
The boys just smile a bit. They look at this sight every day – and probably dream of life in a big city where they can be near their football heroes. They don’t see what I do: unbridled nature in all its power and majesty laid below just for me. This giant split in the Earth. This incredible sense of space and scale. This wonder of BRING HERE, in this sun-blasted landscape. I’m so excited by this ride. It’s up there amongst the very best I ever took, potholes notwithstanding. I feel so privileged to see this. I hope I always remember this day. My finest ride in East Africa long the lip of the Great African Rift – all there just for me.
Hours later, I arrive in Kessup excited, exhilarated, flushed with delight. “I think I’ve just discovered one of the best rides in ALL AFRICA!” I gush to William. “Incredible! Up there with the top of Lesotho, the Rwenzori mountains of Uganda, the forests of Rwanda! What a day! What a ride!” I can’t stop talking: I have to tell someone – so I tell everyone at the Kessup campsite, glowing with fulfilment and the intensity of my ride.
I’m tired but buoyant with the wonder of what I’ve seen. It’s days like this that make travelling so utterly addictive. They don’t happen often, it’s true – there’s actually a lot of boredom and disappointment on the road, but just sometimes come those moments, if I’m lucky even whole days, like today… I can’t express the thrills of my day. If only you could relive these experiences in the vivid details they occur, ‘lockdowns’ and confinement could be made acceptable. But you can’t: you have to BE there to witness the wonder of, well, just BEING THERE!
Just when I thought I was running out of novelties in this part of East Africa, after five extended trips and 20,000 miles of wandering, I discover a new wonder. There’s enough in this region to explore for another trip. I just need to find a base from which to explore these mountains and the tumbling, rugged escarpment, riddled with so many small roads and villages and vistas. Kessup’s about 30 or 40 miles too far south for convenient exploration. Populated by the friendliest people, I’ve confirmed that this is my favourite part of Kenya, and up there with the best of this always-fascinating continent.
I’ve come back to Kessup with a mission: I made prints of quiet Naomi and her late daughter, Prudence, while I was back in Kitale. I even bought a frame, and now I’ve carried the pictures to Lodwar and back for her. Mine is the only image of her baby who died some months after my visit. She’s no other tangible memory. So William and I walk the red laterite roads to her compound, a mile or so along the plateau. She’s home, with her good looking firstborn, Brian, almost five. Some of his friends are playing here too, rolling motorbike tyres as hoops, the most common toys. Naomi is calmly delighted with the gift. “Oh, I appreciate it!” she exclaims, gazing at the image of her and her dead daughter. She brings tea, as Brian, Innocent and Dylan clamber over the rare mzungu. They’re all about four or five, and no one here has a chance to touch a mzungu’s white skin and feel the unusual hairy skin. Little boys should always be about four or five. It’s always endearing, and more photos must be taken; they’re all clamouring for their shots – so are some neighbours. I’m Kessup’s White Man and their photographer too. Each year, the bundle of prints I have to bring back grows thicker.
We can’t linger long today: William is on duty to help feed his ailing father at 1.00. He’s still bedridden and unable to walk, but seems consigned to his fate at wife-number-one’s house, where the family takes turns to help look after him. By good fortune, one of his second batch of sons trained to be a nurse, so now the duty falls on him. “My father paid to train him, so now he has to pay back!” says William with a laugh.
William wants to show me his tomato seedlings. “They are about 3000! I counted three rows and averaged them. I transplant on the 10th. I will make good money! I must do well, because you trusted me.” I invested about £100 in the seeds and fertiliser he needs, and the original ploughing of his shamba. “But I decided not to employ anyone to break up the soil. I did it myself! Now I have nothing better doing, and I don’t take warigi and bulsa any more, I thought it is good exercise and so I was left with about 1000 bob. I took four beers instead!” He rather hopes that the £100 – literally seed money – may earn him as much as £800 to £1000 over the three months’ season, for these are expensive tomatoes, better than the usual run of fruits. “Oh, I can make GOOD money, if I am disciplined… And then invest in next year’s crop as well. Next time you come I can buy beer for you!”
Later, William turns up with a bit of a poser, that rather disturbs my evening. The president has announced a lockdown in Nairobi from tomorrow. What does that mean for my flight out? Am I in Africa for months, or do I have to leave in days? Who knows? I will try not to speculate but run back to Kitale tomorrow, where I have the internet and information. Oh well, it was always the risk of this trip…
I didn’t hang about, getting home to Kitale. I take the new winding road through Kapcherop instead of exploring further. I’m amused that this road brings me through the small scruffy habitation of ‘Garage’, in the midst of which is the ‘Garage Filling Station’. It makes me smile and remember another village, on the road to Soroti in Uganda, called ‘Television’.
Back at home in Kitale, Scovia tells me that I have until Monday at noon to get myself inside the Nairobi county. It’s now early Saturday afternoon. The next two or three hours are spent in frustrating logistics and listening to bad music from KLM’s service centre. I manage to buy a ticket by air from Eldoret to Nairobi on Monday morning, and change my KLM flight to London to Tuesday 30th at midnight. The only anxiety I now have is that I must arrange a corona test before I can fly. KLM’s website says this can be done at the airport in Nairobi, so I must hope for the best and try to get the test on arrival from Eldoret… It’s all a very tense business – and expensive too, of course. The flights add about £500 to my trip. But then, I knew the risk I took, and if all goes well, I know I will consider my three and a half months’ of freedom well worthwhile.
On both the last two afternoons heavy rain has fallen, in Kitale and then in Eldoret where I must stay overnight to get the early plane down to Nairobi. I’m quite glad the rains have finally broken; it makes leaving sun-filled Africa easier…
IF all goes according to plan, tomorrow, the 29th March, day 102 of this trip, I fly to Nairobi, get the corona test, stay in the old Nairobi Club overnight and take a taxi to the airport on Tuesday evening. I will be home rather suddenly on Wednesday 31st March. Then I must stay indoors for ten days in Harberton and will be out of purdah just in time for pubs opening – outside – on the 12th!
So I’ll either add a brief update about the journey home, or I’ll be stuck in Nairobi for some bureaucratic reason. I DO find this a bit stressful..! Ho hum, we live in melodramatic times.