JANUARY 20th to FEBRUARY 3rd.
I rode back to Kitale from Uganda and stayed in Kitale for several days. It’s a pleasant place to rest up and go with the flow and be part of the family but I always feel that restlessness that’s been so much part of my peripatetic life. Sorting out the credit card problem that brought me back took thirty minutes on the phone to a call centre in Bristol. Huh. Still, as I wrote before, thinking back to the trials and tribulations of money-handling on my many many earlier world journeys, this is small hardship worth accepting…
Back in Kitale, our friends Wanda and Jorg arrived for a visit. I introduced them very successfully to Adelight and Rico three years ago. From Cologne, like me they hate northern winters and keep their camping car in Tanzania. I met them at Kessup, looking cosy in their old and idiosyncratic Land Cruiser. We linked immediately and they came on that time to stay a couple of days in the compound at Kitale, congenial folks with the love of Africa in common. This time, I stayed three days with them – one day taken up with a bad attack of vertigo, a nauseous, dizzy effect of a tiny blockage of the inner ear – (‘age related’, I fear!). Ardent travellers, we have much to talk about, especially our many years touring about various bits of this continent, while Rico and Jorg delved beneath their car to mend a leak.
Leaving them in the compound, I rode the high road back to Kessup.
I’m back to Kessup to fulfil a plan that William and I made to hike again to the bottom of the Kerio Valley, this spur of the Great Rift. I ride in on Friday afternoon from the fine Cheringani Highway, with its connecting routes over the high hills now being tarred; losing some of their attraction for a keen trail-riding biker, but making the journey convenient and easy. I no longer arrive at Kessup red with dust and weary from dancing about on my little bike. Now I can make the 85 mile journey in less than two and a half hours if I’ve a mind to hurry through such scenery. Chattering with my fellow travellers, I’m late leaving, about three in the afternoon, so this time I move along, but I must still take time to wave at hundreds of schoolchildren on their way home: it’s astonishing how far so many small children must walk to and from school in so much of Africa. Only expensive private schools sometimes have a school van, and there’s no ‘school run’ clogging these roads, just hundreds of children in their dusty cotton uniforms walking the roadsides, playing and joking, and excitable when a very rare mzungu passes.
It’s beer time when I arrive in Kessup. William’s waiting, talking with ’Dutch’, his pride and joy: the healthy young Friesian cow I bought for him a year ago. He’s convinced the cow will pine when he leaves it for a day or two, looked after by his neighbour while we hike into the valley. It makes me chuckle, his sentimentality – unusual on this continent, where most have such a pragmatic approach to their animals. He cares scrupulously for Dutch and continually expresses his gratitude and responsibility to me for the gift. But William’s made me very free within his community and guides me about this hot, impressive region without question, and here in Africa, a small investment of £400 of capital – such a huge hurdle in rural Kenya – may well make him independent for years: with luck, Dutch will have calves and provide up to ten litres of saleable milk a day. That’s enough to keep William in his few necessities, this man who appears to live on air and a bit of maize meal ugali and his seasonal tomato garden.
“The goodness is, we both like to walk, and we both like people,” says William frequently. So, on Saturday, we leave at ten, the sun already high and hot in a totally blue sky. From horizon to horizon – and that’s a BIG space here on this huge escarpment with the vast valley below – there’s not a cloud, not a handkerchief of shade beyond the one stuck under the back of my cap to keep the burn from the tops of my ears and my always reddening neck. It’s about 30 degrees up here on the plateau, but it will be over 35 by the time we are on the valley floor 2700 feet below…
The stoney descent begins about two miles along the red tracks of Kessup plateau. It’s a way we’ve taken before – both down and up. It’s a road to the valley that will never be completed: it looks to me as if the surveyors got things wrong on this friable, rocky escarpment. There’s a stretch of cliff-like precipice across which I doubt a road can be forced. It looks as if they’ve given up, as we take to a very steep rocky path plunging between aloes and prickly pear, stumbling down the steepest of slopes between the two ends of the putative gravel ledge that forms the ambitious road to the valley. It’s a gap of perhaps 400 feet in altitude, and the surroundings are insecure with long trails of rock falls held together by twisted trees. I fear this road will remain an unfulfilled dream of some local politician. It makes a great route for determined hikers though – and for the women and children we meet lugging great burdens of firewood on their backs up the precipitous slopes. Women’s work in Africa, like everything else.
The views below us are thrillingly huge and shimmering in the heat. This is impressive landscape, this giant rift in the surface of the earth through so much of Africa. The Kerio Valley is merely a branch, a spur, of the Great African Rift, here about 4000 feet deep. We’ll descend about 2700 or 2800 feet from our perch at Kessup, itself 1000 feet below the valley’s upper rim. Behind the Tugen Hills, 15 or 20 miles across this great cleft, lies the Rift Valley proper, hot and huge, cracking much of Africa from top to almost bottom, surely amongst the most impressive topographic features of the Earth?
Far far below us, coming infinitesimally closer with every dusty footstep, is a straight white road, running south to north along the valley bottom – we’ll be down there in two or three hours, baking in the blinding sun amongst acacias, goats, small scattered villages on the edge of poverty, and sometimes elephants. More than 200 live in the valley below, but they’re cautious, shy animals and difficult to see. We clamber on downwards into the inferno, slipping on the unused road, searching for patches of shade to rest and drink our carefully rationed water. The only spring – we remember it from last year on our way up this track – is bone dry. “Eh, life is hard in Kerio Valley!” exclaims William, waving his stick over the parched landscape. William’s family has land down here but it supports little more than goats and the split-log beehives that hang in the trees. His comment is an understatement that makes me wonder how and why people adapt to such harsh places. Through lack of choice, I suppose. I’m glad I can come and witness this life for a day or two and retreat to my comforts.
When we eventually reach that white rock road, our legs straining from the continual downward slope, there are tracks of baby elephants on the dust at the sides of the road. People tell us that the elephants came today before dawn to drink from the public water supply at Kipkoiywo, the hamlet to which we are walking. Where, I wonder, as we plod on tea-plate sized footprints, are the prints of the mother elephants? Perhaps they are canny enough, these intelligent pachyderms, to observe basic road safety: adults using the middle of the road protecting the young elephants on the verges? It’s possible… and there’s no other ready explanation. By 4.00pm, as it is now, there’s been enough thin traffic – a few derelict lorries and overloaded boda-boda motorbike taxis (for no one walks any more, except mad Englishmen and their biddable friends) to scrub away the evidence from the dust of the main carriageway.
The blue of the sky, here 40 or 50 miles north of the Equator, reaches an intensity of azure that Europe never equals except in adverts for expensive ski resorts. Its depth of blueness is a wonder at which I keep exclaiming. Grabbing an iota of shade, we sit on a rocky bank beneath a scant tree and I gaze at the shimmering landscape, just dazzling pale rock, thin acacia trees, scrub and an endless line of electric poles reducing into distant perspective. We’ve about three rather tedious miles to walk on this sun-blasted road to Kipkioywo. Now, by mid-afternoon, it seems an endless plod, the road reflecting brightness. It’s a very rugged life for people here: this year the rains have been poor and it’s dry as hell and about as hot. People live here though, as they do in so many inhospitable places, adapting to circumstances and scratching a sort of living with some goats and a few scrawny cows. There are almost no cash crops here; some ragged maize here and there, and the wonder of this valley: the best, most succulent mangoes in the world. It IS a wonder that they flourish here: it’s so intensely dry, yet mangoes are a fruit of the sweetest juice. But as we pass the small farm of one of William’s uncles, who last year cut a large fruit from a tree and sliced it open for me – the best mango I ever ate – William comments that there’s not a mango to be seen. It’s been a poor harvest, and over early: another sign of hardship and poverty down here in the burning valley, one of the main sources of income decimated by the increasingly uncertain climate.
At last we reach Kipkioywo. There’s a very simple guest house here, nothing more than a rather decorative bed in a tiled room beneath a zinc roof, with a plastic basin and jerrycan for washing. It’s clean and silent, the only qualities I require. It’s hot of course, and the water’s warm as weak tea, sun-bathed in a community tank by the water point where the elephants come for survival these dry weeks, but that we just have to accept. The only trouble is that William, usually easy-going unless he expects that we are being exploited (sometimes a temptation with his mzungu in tow), dislikes the woman who agrees to cook us a meal. She’s been rude to him, which he hates, and now he takes a big dislike to Marcelina. It’s awkward and uncomfortable as he argues about the pennies by which he thinks she is cheating us. William’s parsimony is sometimes amusing: he’ll calculate the cost of our trips down to the last tiny coins, to prove that I am not being cheated. It’s a good failing from this completely honest man, but I could do without the discomfort now when I am so hot and weary. In the end Marcelina slaughters a chicken and cooks chapatis for us, and we are saved by the elephants: she lives a few miles up the white dust road and must leave before dark in case the elephants come tonight. We are left to tend our own dinner. We sit and wait by the charcoal stove, drinking the warm beer William has had to go fifteen kilometres with a boda to collect. The meal’s actually quite good, if much too salty for me, but after our walk, maybe the salt’s not a bad thing, even if I dislike the flavour. I’ve pissed once since breakfast.
By 8.30 we are abed in our hot rooms. The elephants don’t come and I sleep like a log; dream-filled sleep, that I usually have in this heat. Pity I never remember what the dreams are about. Doubtless untroubled…
Next morning we breakfast on greasy chicken and cold chapatis and a rather small mango – William hates waste and he’s sacked the cook woman anyway. We’re on our way by 8.30, along the white road to the north. We’ve not really made a plan; William thinks we should head for Arror, a small township that I suspect is way beyond our reach. I rode this rocky road in 2017 when it was just a track. I recollect Arror: a back-of-beyond place of small kiosk shops, where I photographed an elderly tailor called Christopher, making bright school uniforms at the roadside while I drank a soda – I hadn’t yet discovered the delights of sweet milky chai on the road. I feel that Arror is a long way ahead. William’s never really explored the rest of the valley beyond the part he knows, where his family owns land below the Kessup plateau. When we reach Kabulwo, we compromise and ask a young man, Raymond, if there’s a place we can stay. We’d blithely assumed we might climb the escarpment again, but looking up at the indescribably hair-pinned road, we know it’s probably impossible after four hours on the blinding white ‘highway’. Raymond guides us to the Kabulwo Guest House, and William, fearing we’ll be exploited for a few bob if his mzungu is present, goes ahead to negotiate. He beckons from the gate; he’s done a deal: it’s cheap at £3.30 each for the night, same as it was at Kipkioywo. There’s cold beer – a fridge! – a real delight down here, and there’s food too. Raymond is happy and I must leave him my number: he calls later to wish me goodnight.
The rooms are basic. Very basic. Too small for this heat. The corrugated roof and interior walls are like a hotplate this afternoon. We relax in the threadbare yard under a tree. It’s Sunday and a few people drink beer in a couple of over-heated zinc sun shelters. The young boy who is cook is friendly and respectful – a quality William admires, especially in the young. He’s called Hilary, and we send him to see if there’s moratina in town. Moratina is a local beer made from honey and water, boiled with some mysterious tree wood. It’s sunflower yellow in colour, a bit soupy and either sweet (the one I prefer) or sour, which William likes better. Hilary comes back to tell us it’s for sale in a house in the centre of this small scrappy village.
So we sit with some friendly locals, excited to have a mzungu drinking their odd brew. Hilary gets a glass for his trouble and people come to greet the strange white man who’s able to drink their yellow stuff. It’s fun, these meetings: people are so surprised at my adaptability: they’ve never seen white people so close in familiar surroundings, and all want to buy me more moratina. It’s mildly alcoholic and not unpleasant, but half a litre will do for me. William says he’ll carry the other bottle, just bought for me by David, on our walk up the mountain tomorrow. By then it’ll have soured – in fact, when he opens it a quarter way up the mighty cliff face next morning, it explodes and sprays two thirds of its contents about the parched hillside in a great arc of yellow fermenting stickiness. None of our companions believes I’ll be able to clamber up their mountain. Looking up at the zigzags on the precipitous faces, I wonder too…
It’s still hot and the guest house yard is still scruffy; boda-bodas come and go with jerrycans of water, for there’s no piped supply here. A young teacher converses with me for a while. A pleasant, educated fellow, Rodgers has been abandoned here by the government, with no choice as to his location. He’s teaching in the village primary school, while his wife and children are hundreds of miles away. He’s delighted to find some reasonably intellectual conversation as he drinks his Guinness. He doesn’t complain about his posting: it’s just the way of Kenyan employment – at least he has a job.
Good-nighting him, we retire to our ovens early. It’s 8.30ish and there’s not a lot to keep us up. I rinse off in lukewarm water from a bucket and drop sweatily on the bed. The walls are like firebricks. I’m instantly wet again, despite the wash down. But I sleep again after a fashion, with more forgotten hot-night dreams.
By the time the ruthless dawn once again blasts through the pink frilly nylon curtain at the only small window, I feel slow-cooked to a sandwich filling, basted on an unsavoury sweat-filled mattress (NEVER lift the sheet to look!). Today I have to climb a 3000 foot paperclip red dust trail into the sky, spotlit like a fly on a light shade. Kabulwo isn’t the hottest place I’ve ever been – that’s reserved for southern Namibia, where the thermometer soared to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade – of which there was none on a motorbike – but it’s up there with the hottest nights in my little house in Navrongo, Ghana, when I’d take to a mattress on the flat roof. In the Kabulwo Guest House, it’s just the wet mattress and damp sheets and another wash down in warm water to start the day.
We’re on our way by 8.40. It’s already hot, but nothing to what is to come. We walk west towards the great escarpment from the hamlet’s ‘centre’, a place of a few booths and kiosks selling the same things that every booth and kiosk sells in Kenya: soap powder, sodas, ugali flour, a few fading tomatoes and countless Chinese plastic goods of low value. The track is dusty and a signpost tells us we have 12 kilometres to take us to Salaba, high, HIGH above, far beyond the visible edge of the vast cliff-like wall. I fear that there will be rise upon rise beyond that sharp edge… Soon, we are called into a neat compound to greet the inhabitants. Everyone is SO friendly and welcoming to a rare mzungu, they all want me to visit. “Eh, the pawpaw ladies were very happy! When a mzungu entered their compound!” exclaims William as we walk on, carrying three as yet unripe pawpaws they’ve knocked from their lanky trees with long sticks.
We walk on… I’m never quite sure which is the greatest incentive: challenging my body as I get older with unlikely goals, or the exploration and discovery of what might be over the next hill. But I know that I’ll be going over that next hill just as long as I am able. This hill, though, is brutal…
Pinioned to the shadeless mountainside by the pitiless searchlight equatorial sun, we staggered upwards on ever tighter twists and turns of rock and dust. It’s unbelievably a boda-boda road (one I might try on my Mosquito!), a new trail that attacks the heights of the escarpment. No one walks it any more (except that mad Englishman and his compliant friend) and the appallingly maintained 100cc motorbikes struggle and rattle, heavily overloaded and dangerously freewheeling down the 3000 feet, without control on bald tyres, most riders barely controlling their excitement and amazement to find an old white bloke plodding ever higher.
We walked for eight hours, about 15 miles and nearly 3500 feet uphill…
The giant valley expanded below us, our starting point dwindling on the valley floor. In scraps of shade we stopped to rest our beating hearts. We carried a litre of water each, and William had what was left of his moratina after his sticky explosive shower bath. Where we could, we topped up with water from pipes or houses we passed. Every day I thank goodness for my stainless steel guts that allow me to imbibe almost any local water and food.
The trail wound upwards relentlessly towards the crystal azure sky. It was stupendous, a word to use carefully. This is nature and scenery at its best, its most spectacular, its biggest. The extraordinary effort and the slowness of our progress made it rewarding in a way that I’d never experience so intimately on my Mosquito. The sun, with our 18 inch long shadows, blasted down, the dust scuffed at our feet, every hot rock and stone felt through shoe soles, with hardly ever a relief of a downhill slope – and when there was, we knew it would lead inevitably to another hill. This was supreme physical effort, repaid every moment by extraordinary vistas of gigantic proportions.
It took over five hours to reach the top – which wasn’t the top, as a cliff face another 300 feet or so rises west of the final narrow plateau, along which we walked towards distant Kessup. My map told me that Kessup and cold beer was probably a further 15 miles from where we joined the red dust of the plateau track. We reached a compromise and stumbled another five miles or so, gently rising and dropping along the fertile, peopled plateau, until we both reacted instinctively to a passing boda-boda rider’s happy smile and greeting, such that William signalled that he should drop his passenger and turn back to find us. Funny how that instinct found us a charmer, amongst dangerous, careless riders. Mathew drove us perhaps 10 bumpy miles on his battered machine with consideration and care. We parted friends and he was rewarded with a tip, while I submitted (as often) to a ‘selfie with the mzungu’.
Supper and cool beers over, I was exhausted and fit for no more than bed and heavy sleep. We had climbed the wall of the Rift Valley once again, the fifth time I think…
Next day, to complete the hat-trick, we clambered rather more slowly up to Kessup Forest, the preserved woodland above the Kessup plateau, almost 1000 more feet uphill, and nearly 4000 feet above the scratch of white road so far below, along which we sweated the day before. It looked insignificant indeed.
On the way up this time, we met Zachia, a charming young 24 year old, educated and thinking, university trained as a teacher of history and KiSwahili. A local lad, he has been recalled by a proud father and forced – for now – to work on the family farm; a case of parental domination on their last-born, despite his education. Now he was on his way to clear one of the pipes in the system that funnels water down to the plateau. Starved of intellectual company, in a small gossipy, envious community, such young men will gravitate towards the free-thinking experience of mzungus with desperation. Frustrated Zachia is currently trapped in this small-minded, traditional community, with bigger thoughts of escape and freedom. It’s so difficult for such people to break the moulds of their traditional parents and upbringing and get out into the wider world. He’s seen a bigger horizon during teaching practice in another part of the country and dreams of more than a local smallholding in a rural community can satisfy. I hope he can escape and attain some of his dreams. He has rejected religion (something he cannot admit in this hidebound village); wants to travel; has no urge for children – witnessing with some cynicism the world into which he’d bring them; and dreams of freedom to make his own way without the ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ that so stifles opportunities. Things he can’t talk about in a conservative uneducated region. Poor Zachia, a conflicted soul in search of only what we all want, but that is so difficult to forge in a narrow minded rural African village.
Some journeys are very special: I’ve a smile on my face for another whole day. On Wednesday, on hearing that it’s Adelight’s 40th birthday on Saturday and she wants her brother to be present, I change my plans. I was going home today, and on to Sipi on Friday, now I’ll take a longer route home and leave for Uganda on Sunday. I’ll explore the remote gravel tracks on the rim of the great valley on the way north. I’ve been this way twice now, but there are always new tracks to discover. And now, thanks to the manager of the campsite at Kessup, I have a map! I’ve been trying to get a map of the Kerio Valley for years: there are so many small tracks through these magnificent mountains alongside the deep valley. Last visit, I spotted a tourist map on the office wall of the guest house; I even photographed it, but now Timothy has sourced me a copy of my own. It’s not a very good map, more interested in the hotel adverts on the reverse, but now I have names of villages and all sorts of routes open to me.
I visit the bank in Iten, the scruffy main town on the valley rim, and leave William, who’s come up with me to do some small shopping with the ten or twelve pounds I’ve given him. Now I’m on my own – and I realise that so much of this journey I have been in company with my African families. For an obsessively independent person, it’s quite a pleasure to be alone, independent for a day.
Now I’ll follow the road on which we walked two days ago, past the top of the contorted, twisting track up from the hot valley. Late that afternoon, before we engaged Mathew and his boda-boda to carry us the last ten miles home, we plodded along a red laterite road along the plateau beneath the valley lip. Now I have my Mosquito to take the pressure. The 20 mile vistas to my right, as I ride north, are superb, gigantic in scale, misted today by some humidity rising from the depths.
I ride back down the escarpment three kilometres from Iten and turn onto the red dust track that will follow the valley edge for fifty miles or more, here and there becoming little more than a cattle trail, teetering on the edge of huge drops into the burning Rift. Everyone waves and laughs as I pass: I am surrounded by goodwill. I love this. My smile spreads wider. I pass through many small hamlets, a celebrity on my blue motorbike. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” rises the chorus. At one point, below some inaccessible cliffs, the road is hacked from the rock in a narrow ridge. I doubt if four wheels can come this way. I twist and turn, wriggling along the mountainsides. I’m having such fun.
Here and there I have to ask my way when the track splits. No one can believe their eyes: this old white bloke bouncing through their villages. I reach Kapsowar, a junction of several insignificant roads. There’s a tar road going downhill here like a spaghetti trail, but I don’t want the tar road: I know the beauties of the terribly pot-holed broken track that stays up here on the heights and winds its beautiful way through some forest scenery that feels like parkland.
It’s punishing, but the rewards are great: deep green ancient trees against the brightest of blue skies, speckled with wisps of snow white clouds. Then the potholed section becomes serpentine tar winding through the heights of plunging hills. It’s just lovely here, and round a corner in some miles, I know there’ll be the spectacular view of one of Africa’s funicular roads that screws its way down to the shimmering depths and rejoins the white dust road along which William and I walked three days ago, far back down to the south.
The impressive twisting helter-skelter road is tarmacced but unmaintained. Here and there as I ride rather carefully down its three and half thousand feet, the upper levels have crashed down and partially covered the road. It’s so steep that even engine braking is insufficient; my brakes must be red hot. A great waterfall spins over a cliff and courses like a tide down a concrete conduit alongside several of the turns: I can feel it cool the air as it races and rushes valley-wards at speed. If I could stop, it’d be so refreshing to bath my face in the torrent, but I daren’t stop on this gradient: I have to keep going. I’m sure the gradient is considerably more than would be considered safe for vehicles in Europe, with no escape but over the edge…
At last I’m at the bottom. The heat is like a blast furnace down here. The amazing big-dipper tar road ends at a bizarre junction, complete with traffic island. The roads to left and right, however, are mere dust and rock tracks. I keep left, the concrete traffic island causing me to feel I should stop to check left and right, but I haven’t even seen a derelict boda for the past twelve miles from the top. I turn left: I know the way, I’ve taken this route twice in the other direction. I know that I now have to bounce and battle across the terrible moraine of a devastating landslide that occurred about four years back. It killed over 200 people when the mountainside swept into the valley, the result of tree felling for pocket handkerchief shamba fields on the slopes. Shockingly, that night the mud and rock swept away the dormitory of a girl’s school as well as homesteads and small shops. Some of the shops are still visible in the debris, roofless, pocked by the flood, broken by huge rocks now scattered across the valley bottom. The trail pushes between them and through the shallow river. It’s unsettling to look up and imagine the power of the mud and rock that caused this horror.
Then I’m on the dust road that circles the base of the great escarpment for the next 30 miles or more. Unfortunately, for I am tired and hot now, the road is being rebuilt, with accompanying diversions and stretches of loose rubble and earth. I need more care now, not less, and tiredness is taking its toll. I’ve a long flat run on this broken surface; the deserts of northern Kenya begin here. The steep faces on my left are the end of the highlands; from here to South Sudan and Ethiopia it’s parched scrubby desert of unimaginable scale: just acacias and dry shrubs, goat-herders and rude dwellings of mud and thatch. This is a poverty-stricken region where water is scarce and people look lean and hungry. They’re troublesome people too, notorious for killing sprees of cattle rustling that have become a sort of tradition or sport between neighbouring warlike tribes. Many travellers avoid the area, frightened off by prophet-of-doom stories of gun battles and lawlessness – but still the populous wave and leap excitedly to see the mzee mzungu pass. It doesn’t seem remotely dangerous – if you ignore the doom-merchants. I suspect it’s a problem of idle, unemployed youth and tribal rivalry – one of Africa’s perennial problems – between the supposedly aggressive Pokot, Turkana and Marakwet tribes. So many Africans identify themselves first by their tribe and very secondarily by their nationality, a concept largely imposed on them by outsiders during the colonial carving up of the continent. The aggression and competition is unlikely to affect me and my eccentric tribe.
By five I am exhausted and happy to turn back onto the tarmac road to the far north of the country and the distant Turkana desert regions, tribal lands of toughness and hardship. About a mile up the road I know there’s a well established camping site with bandas (sleeping huts). It was created by an English professor and his Eritrean wife to supply experiences of Africa to English school groups, but ‘risk assessment’ and H&S have killed that trade and those experiences. The only other guest is a Anglican vicar’s widow from Sussex who befriended the family and visited with one of the original parties. She’s scathing about how officialdom and the Blame Culture has destroyed the opportunities for international understanding and adventure. In her seventies now, she comes back annually to interact with local schools and visit her friends. It’s good to have someone to talk with over my Tuskers and supper (although she rather talks AT me, as an old school teacher) but I’m so tired that all I really want is to stretch out flat on the bed and sleep until tomorrow. What I’ve done today is a young man’s game – but I’ve had a special day and enjoyed every mile of my rough safari. And maybe there’ll be another tomorrow…
If you don’t go out and look, you’ll never find the satisfaction of days like this.
At the guest house/ campsite I find that Wanda and Jorg left a few hours before I bowled in and headed back to Kessup, swapping places. I probably missed them on the road by a short time. Wanda texts me to say they enjoyed their ride back through Kerio Valley, but doesn’t say where they climbed the escarpment. Maybe they went right to the end and drove up the tar road. I think my description of the precipitous zigzags may have unnecessarily put them off my rather adventurous route.
Finally sourcing a map, even if it’s a glossy tourist one, of this region that I love to explore so much, has added new horizons to my wandering. My return to Kitale was obscure but wonderful – tens of miles of severe trail riding over the top of the Cheringani Hills (the ones that’d be called mountains anywhere else) riding up to over ten thousand feet in the most dramatic scenery on tracks hacked and worried from the steep mountainsides, mere shelves of rock and dust close to the clouds. Trail riding was an early enthusiasm in my biking life – but somehow a couple of miles of Devon farm lanes hasn’t retained the appeal, when here in Africa I can trail ride all day, climbing SIX THOUSAND feet amongst landscapes from coffee table books.
I’m away from Marich Pass rather late, conversing first with the CofE vicar’s widow from Sussex and then with Wahid, the son of the elderly owner, who’s currently in England, leaving Wahid in charge. He’s a businessman and entrepreneurial, with his family in America and his own origins in Sudan. Talking by my bike, he tells me he wants to develop some historical, cultural, projects in Khartoum and would I be willing to visit him there and help him get his ideas to fruition. “Are you expensive?” he asks candidly. To which I reply, “Yes, in America! But I did a job in South Africa three years ago, consulting on a dinosaur museum, and all they could pay was my expenses! But I still went because I love travelling. And I haven’t been to Sudan yet!” Well, who knows? I’m certainly up for it!
I rode away, smiling to myself at the chances and opportunities that occur in life, and headed south into the wide, dry, hot mountain pass that curls back to the highlands. I’d spotted a faint line on the new map, that headed high into the mountains on an obscure but intriguing route joining some of the dots I already know, and roads I love in this dramatic terrain. I’d no idea just how fine this ride would be, or how hard and remote…
Thirty kilometres up the road, now beginning to climb back to the highlands, I found my junction. A rusty road sign, almost illegible, that claimed that I was turning onto the E353 made me laugh. This insignificant trail, that was soon to climb so high and so steeply as I bucketed about on rocks and dust, was considered a classified road! You could take a four wheel drive vehicle up it, I suppose, very slowly. After all, people need to transport goods everywhere, even in such inaccessible mountains.
My road twisted and turned, corkscrewing its way upwards, rocky and broken. To one side rose steep slopes, cultivated wherever smallholdings could cling to the earth. The views expanded down and around me. I was soon on precipice shelf roads, bounding and crashing over the rocky surfaces, exercising just about every muscle I have left. Often, on these winter journeys, I aim to lose at least an inch of my summer waistline: soon gone with this physical effort!
The valleys plunge steeply away, a foot or two from the narrow track. I look down onto shambas and rude houses of mud and thatch or zinc and timber. There are forests up here, with mature trees with screw-thread bark and dark coniferous leaves. The air is the freshest I’ll ever breathe; the sun sears down; the temperature reduces from the discomfort of the northern deserts as I climb. I have to stop often – to take photos of this extraordinary place. My mind is clear and I’m happy. It’s impossible not to react to this freedom, despite the hard effort and the always slightly present anxiety of mechanical problems – or falling off. But if you don’t take risks, life doesn’t amount to much: overcoming these anxieties is part of the fun and satisfaction. I’m here, almost ten thousand feet above sea level, in the brightest African sunshine, with spectacle after spectacle at every new corner of the track – or the ‘E353’.
Finally, I am on top. There’s a small hamlet and a junction. Which way is to Murkokoi? A band of men at the side of the road are astonished to see me as I pull up to ask. A lanky fellow with a rasta cap points downwards to the right, a winding red rock trail. But I’ve still a long way to go. It’s even more remote up here, cultivation is more difficult on this steepness, but raggy sheep browse in my path and cows graze the short grasses. Occasionally, there’s someone watching their cattle, and here and there a small house clings to the slopes. One final rise of a mile or two and I start the descent for real. After a short while I am utterly confused to find myself issue from this cattle path (the E353!) onto a lovely smooth tar road. I didn’t expect it at all. I have to ask my way again, and while I’m at it, I ask the people loading a battered taxi car about the new tarmac. It seems it goes a long way into the mountains on another road I’ve seen on my new map. Another route for another time!
I’ve been in West Pokot region for the past fifty miles. The Pokot tribe is known through these parts as a troublesome, rather unfriendly, remote people. It’s true few people waved or smiled back, and children were mutely amazed rather than excited. On the other side of the mountains (‘Hills’!) I come back to the Marakwet people, friendly and cheerful. Joining the new tar road I descend in glorious sweeping curves to the Cheringani Highway. That used to be a dust track too, when I first used it seven years ago. Stopping for chai by the junction, I am soon surrounded by young men interrogating me with curiosity on my journey and my ‘big’ motorbike. These interactions are such fun, as I bask in my celebrity status. I often reflect on the commonest question I’m asked at home, “Aren’t you afraid, all these dodgy places you go?” If only people understood how open and generous most Africans can be in their welcome.
The assembled crowd, poking and pointing at the finer points of my bike, assure me there’s a shortcut to Kapcherop, my next destination. “Before the radio mast!” says one of them, pointing across the hills a kilometre or so. I wave goodbye and set off again, restored by sickly tea I’d abhor in any other circumstances. The next track is also broken and stoney as it leads through handsome farmlands enclosed by split-tree fences and then enters a fine shady forest, to emerge ten miles later on the edges of a sparklingly green estate of tea. And here’s familiar untidy Kapcherop straddling a tar road, another one that used to be an adventurous track just a few years back. From here I have an easy ride home, spinning down the curls and whirls of the road, that suggest that I’m going to be in lowlands soon – but I’m coming back to Kitale, itself at almost 2000 metres altitude on the slopes of Mount Elgon.
The past week has been one of those that makes travelling such an obsession for me. I hiked in and out of the Great Rift; I rode tracks and trails over imposing mountains; I talked with everyone from Kenyan schoolchildren and goat herders to a vicar’s widow from Sussex and a Sudanese businessman with a Californian phone number; I drank beer gazing over the wide Kerio Valley and local-brew moratina beneath a bamboo tree in a friendly village backyard; I wandered in high equatorial forest and rode the edges of a vast desert; I was welcomed by a thousand people, the focus of a thousand smiles and a flood of goodwill. I had a video call with Kari in Devon from a heat-blasted bar in the back-of-beyond in the Rift Valley, now with 4G internet (!) and learned of the frustrations of modern thought versus conservative village concepts. I’ve exercised mind and body and enjoyed the sunniest weather – in February, the most depressing northern month. And on Sunday, I set off back to Uganda, with probably a ride right across the country to far north western Tanzania in prospect, when I hear from my American associates.
Not bad… “Aren’t you afraid, these dodgy places you go..?”
Wonderful, descriptive story telling….keep ‘em coming JB….