Master mason with assistant

The ride back round the mountain between Kenya and Uganda becomes easier each week, now the contractors are approaching the end of their work on the sweeping road. It’s impressive work – with attendant immense debts to one of the world’s greediest nations. As I’ve frequently commented: I have yet to see a Chinese charity on this continent – or any other…

Expecting the usual rusted tin-roofed huts of the Kenya immigration services at the border, I rode right past the new mirror-glass office, occupied rather untidily since my last visit three weeks ago, and had to turn back to complete formalities. The old bridge, the one on which both parapets had collapsed on my last passing, is now redundant, bypassed by the new – mud surfaced as yet – concrete monster over the dirty trickle that defines the international border.

I’m known at Suam Border these days, there are no other mzee mzungus passing this way on motorbikes. I’m soon on my way towards Kapchorwa, now less than an hour and a half away – a journey that used to take three or four hours of very hard effort. I’ve delayed leaving for Uganda by a day so I could join Adelight in celebrating her 40th birthday on Saturday. We have a cheerful, noisy event despite an all-day power outage. A dozen or so of her women friends come and demolish a 5 litre box of wine and eat chicken and rice. It’s turmoil for a few hours, but Adelight is happy with her day. I’d planned to ride to Sipi on Friday, to enjoy the weekend with the two children, now schools are back.

I never tire of the magnificence of the road to Sipi

Everyone’s waiting for me at Rock Gardens, although the two children are oddly shy, considering they’ve been constantly asking where their mzungu was. I’ve come to really love these two; two of the most delightful children I’ve ever known – of course, the fact that one of them has all the same names as me helped that bond, but they’re charmers: JB2 more demonstrative and noisy than his very lovely sister. They’re only a couple of years apart, so they make good companions to each other. I needn’t have worried about missing them as Alex has been too timid to admit that he hasn’t money for their school fees, so they haven’t started back yet, missing the first few not very busy days. So I enjoy their happy company for the first two days anyway, until we can go and pay the fees for their relatively expensive private school in Kapchorwa, ten miles away. The fees are increased by the transport – the minibus comes to pick these two – aged four and six – at 5.30 am and drops them home around 6.30 in the evening. I transfer the £300 that will cover their education until the end of April. A third of that is to cover their transport to school in the minibus, ten miles each way. It’s a happy investment for me. That evening by the fire pit, I tell Keilah she can be a doctor, or a pilot, or whatever she wants, in contrast to expectations for a mere girl-child in Uganda…

JBs 1and 2 and Keilah. We’d just made a video call to Leslie in Florida and excitement was high!


It can be depressing to listen to much of the daily life in a rural African community where education is low, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ rule social life and there is so little enlightenment. One of the most distressing aspects is the total inequality of half the population, the abused, downtrodden, dominated women. So many places live by medieval standards – not discouraged by the Catholic church, the corrupt ‘pastors’, the misogynistic governments and certainly not by Islam… Women are inferior: that half of the population who coincidentally do all the work. Like slaves. So says the myth that upholds ‘culture’.

Under European law (were the – largely male – police more diligent in upholding it in these cases too of course) many African men would be beneficially behind bars. I hear such awful, unjust stories: tales that would be upheld as rape and abuse in legions of cases.

The subject comes up as we sit by the Rock Gardens fire pit in the moonlit evening. Precious is sitting on the grass; I am in the larger Chinese plastic chair that’s usually provided for me as the mzee (old man) and Alex in one of the less comfortable Chinese bits of junk. “Are you comfortable down there?” I ask Precious, “or are you there from ‘tradition’?” with an ironic emphasis on the last word.

“Oh, women should always sit at the feet of men!” she responds, with a slightly embarrassed chuckle. “We should serve or men from the floor and never sit on a chair with them.”

Precious uses the new kitchen stove for the first time, chips ahoy!

So, of course, to make a silly point, I get down on the grass too. She laughs a little uncertainly. And the stories come. Terrible tales of marital torture, abuse, rape; appalling antique attitudes to child rearing; child abuse; the curse of women (never the men to blame) bearing girl children; sexual abuse of minors; male police being engaged to drag women for intimate tests at hospital; men who create so many children with so many women but take no responsibility thereafter, financial or moral. Precious tells me of the insults she has to bear for having only two children; belief of her inadequacies; of how many believe she has only one child anyway, for Keilah is a mere girl and remains uncounted by most.

This is truly a desperately backward country. The frustrations I used to feel that I couldn’t change attitudes in Ghana – a developed country compared to this social mess – is nothing to the anger that begins to grip as Precious continues a litany stories. I feel a cloud of real depression that people must live like this, with these antediluvian social attitudes in the 21st century. To live in this social dereliction, with an utterly corrupt society ruled by a disaster of a ‘government’, and influenced by outdated misogynistic religions; where in practice men have all the human rights; homophobia is at an extreme level and homosexuality remains a criminal offence; where children – even today – are sold for medieval witchcraft; where those engaging in underage sex with children and young girls are considered fortunate for the opportunity; incest is unpunished; children uneducated because the men that fathered them have moved on to other ‘wives’; where drunkenness is so common; families beggared by ‘traditional’ funeral practices…

Thank god I can go home to my comforts, even if we complain of outdated attitudes and uneven application of the laws, of unequal rights of women, of the inequities of economic distribution and so much more. My only sadness is that I leave behind a quite enlightened family whom I’ve come to love, abandoned in this appalling medieval ‘culture’. Maybe Alex’s good sense and my influence may get these two delightful children educated – equally – and make an infinitesimal change in attitudes. They are already known in this backward rural village as the two best English speaking children, bright and intelligent – but no one makes the link between a small family of a mere two children (well, one a and a bit, as Keilah doesn’t count for most) and the stimulation and better education levels that can be thus afforded.

Oh, Africa opens your eyes when you get beneath the gloss and glitz of the animal safaris and extreme sports, the big sights and the luxury tented camps. Come and live in a benighted Ugandan village and you learn the realities of much of the world’s social order. And it’s ugly.


But my relation with the two children is fun and charming. While the money transfers and the school minibus is worked on (they’ve just had a long holiday, and I do wonder why they wait until term starts? Perhaps it’s just that until then there’s no cash in the school coffers either?) on Monday, Alex and I visit the school. I cause chaos: a mzungu in the playground! Hundreds of lovely small children mob me as I talk to Teacher Rose. They are screaming and waving, trying to touch my hands and oddly hairy arms.

It’s quite delightful. Teacher Rose remembers me, even my name, but of course, she has a pretty good clue in her four year old pupil, Jonathan Bean Cheptai! I wonder what they think here? A mzungu granddad, whom they must know is sponsoring these two little people. There seems to be no envy or jealousy, just a realisation that these two have good fortune that so many lack – but these are educated teachers; it’s amongst the ignorant that the real jealousy occurs: people without the understanding that it’s Alex’s integrity and hard work that made us to bond. Sadly, ignorance is rife here in Uganda, almost the norm. There are thousands of children NOT at school, even on our ramblings around the villages. Well, there will be, with the average mother giving birth to seven children, won’t there? And fathers with no responsibility. The ones at Shalom Primary and Nursery are the fortunate ones, who might even have a future in this derelict country…


Hot water is a major step – for me at least.

Tuesday, it’s back to work. I suggest we complete the earth oven and the oil drum hot water heater, and finish off the new kitchen before we attack the latrine block. Tom, the appalling wood butcher is here today. Keep me away from working near him! He calls himself a carpenter but the work’s truly dreadful and bent nails are everywhere. Much of his day is spent on his mobile phone, or talking with friends, the rest in resharpening his ancient saw and sawing very slowly. A carpenter with no tools of his own except an antique saw, a venerable plane and a panga (machete). Why, I wonder in frustration, doesn’t he buy himself a bow saw? They aren’t expensive (£5, I went and bought one myself), cut faster and with far less effort. But it wouldn’t occur to anyone here to invest to accumulate: just not language they’d understand. Fortunately, he’s elsewhere in the compound, making two tables (with panga and saw) in the time I’d’ve made four…

The ‘sunset terrace’ on 1818 bar.

Keilah and JB2 love to get involved with our building works. We’re making a final mix for the earth oven: this one’s made from sand, earth and cow shit. It’s a bit smelly, but inoffensive, and one of the world’s oldest building techniques after all. They love slapping the mixture onto our domed oven, making ‘mandazis’ – mud balls – for Uncle Jonathan (a mandazi is a sort of fried bread ball – A popular schoolchild snack. VERY boring!) and slopping about in the mud-mixing heap in their bare feet. They are utterly filthy and having fun working with Daddy and Uncle. I’m proud of our oven and we’re all looking forward to trying it out. The hot water drum is progressing: I think I’ll be able to wash down in a jerrycan of warm water by tomorrow if the fire draws under the drum.

JB rides the wheelbarrow.


For two nights, William travels to Sipi from Kessup. He can’t come for longer as his precious cow, Dutch, will pine for his attention! He arrives on Wednesday evening, forced to take a boda-boda from Suam to Kapchorwa, poor fellow, as no matatus were available after lunch. He’s quite excited to be on a trip, however short. Most people seldom move beyond their communities – it’s an unnecessary expense. During his time in the police, William visited Uganda, but now he never goes beyond Eldoret, his local city, or Iten, his local town.

William and Alex cross a land slip. It always seems we walk uphill round here…

Now, with both my walking companions in one place, it’s pretty obvious how we’ll spend Thursday. We set out at ten and walk for eight hours again. By six, I am flagging – I’ve got a stomach that is earth-quaking on me. I’ve picked up parasites in my gut. A couple of days later, Alex gets it even worse than me. A hazard of the sort of travelling I do… It’s a bit uncomfortable but it’s not the runs, just grinding and gassy as a jet engine. Hopefully, yoghurt, ginger and a few days will sort it out. It saps my energy and I’m delighted when Alex spots a neighbour in his ancient, battered Land Cruiser and negotiates a ride home the last five miles (no one in Sipi does anything for nothing: there’s no concept of giving a lift to your neighbour).

Once again, we walk to Doreen and Leonard’s home, taking the high route this time, teetering along the very edge of the escarpment cliffs. “It’s a great route to bring guests,” I say to Alex, “but make sure they are fit and have no suicidal tendencies!” The lips of several hundred feet drops are thick with grasses and scrub: it’d be very easy to slip and disappear over the edge… I love this route, one of the best we’ve taken in the dramatic surroundings up here above the apparently limitless plains of central Uganda. Walks here are strenuous, with much climbing – oddly, we never seem to descend by the same amount! It always appears to be uphill here…

Children shout excitedly: they should be in school of course, but when you’ve so many and no money, education is ignored – and a lot of them are girls anyway. “I’m not sending girls to school for another man!” is a scandalous expression I’ve heard several times here. Girls are disposable, and make money for the fathers in dowry, but an educated girl brings trouble and doesn’t increase their value. It’s a very unenlightened community.

We pass through small scruffy villages, ankle deep in plastic refuse that no one sees. Single-use bottles crunch underfoot. It’s horrible, and the plastic extends across the high slopes everywhere we venture; it’s in the fields, piled up around rural homes, stuck on thorn trees. Everywhere. What are we doing to our fragile planet? The irony is, that Kenya passed laws banning plastic carrier bags, and I’m even instructed on the aeroplane flight down that I may not import plastic bags – yet every loaf of bread, every food product, every Chinese item, is wrapped in plastic.

But Uganda’s very green too. We walk through small forests and endless waving matoke trees. Red dust swirls, as always, round our shoes. Those we pass are friendly and cheerful. “Stop torturing your old mzungu! Get him a boda!” some call. Alex and William laugh; William understands the language here. He calls this his grandfather’s home, as his Kalenjin tribe in Kenya is closely related to the tribe here; their dialect is different, but the language is recognisable. His tribe migrated from here at some time. In so much of Africa, people just a few miles apart often have another language. We don’t have to go far for Alex, a very quick linguist, to be struggling with tiny local tongues spoken in very limited areas. And, as I’ve often written, most identify with their tribe before their nationality – which is a major reason for the malfunctioning of so much of African politics. That and outright corruption.

A cheery local woman follows William up the first ladder.
Then it’s my turn.

Through the steep undergrowth and tiny fields on the steepest of slopes, we find our way to the ladder I remember so well from a walk two years ago. It’s about 40 feet high and constructed of nailed branches in an alarmingly informal way. It gets us up a small cliff to slopes on which we can clamber between postage stamp fields and crazy dangerous terraces. We pass through some more villages and then take off on a twisting path across the clifftops.

The view from the top! The ladders begin here.

We are approaching the very tall steel ladders that we now know quite well. They plunge down about 200 feet alongside a very impressive, photogenic bluff, with Uganda spread endlessly beyond. William is a bit phased by these two very long ladders. They’ve handrails – unlike some along this escarpment – but are long and steeply pitched. But we talk him down with a bit of encouragement and then delve off down the rocky precipices to the red road far below.

William wasn’t so sure about the long ladder…

We come off the semi-vertical lands almost at Doreen’s house. She’s surprised to see us, and delighted. We like these two, Doreen and Leonard – he of the father with 60 children, which I now find may be 64! His 25 year old youngest brother, a very handsome young man, last born of the multi-bigamist (not that anyone’d recognise the concept. He’s just admired as a ‘strong’ man) joins us, and seems to think he’s number 64… The old man is 83 and still alive; he lives just down the hill, but we haven’t time to visit now. Maybe he doesn’t know the final count of his profligacy himself..?

Doreen makes us weak milky coffee from her own beans, and Leonard is thrilled to find us visiting again. We agree that sometime Alex and I must visit and stay overnight, perhaps exploring further round the cliff faces with Leonard. As last time, he accompanies us many miles on our homeward journey, a most affable fellow. But by the time it’s coming up to six in the evening, after maybe 15 miles of very hard walking, we get back to the tar road that clambers up the cliff-sides to Sipi, and this is when I’m delighted to see Alex recognise his neighbour. We were about to negotiate for a dangerous boda-boda ride – and I spend time refusing to pay if they freewheel down any hills. “I shall deduct 500 bob every time you freewheel!” Twice, recently, I had to use a boda and was astonished to find that neither rider had the faintest idea how to ride downhill in gear! They’ve never done it until I insist on engine braking. Alex and I never rode so slowly to Kapchorwa and back home! I quite enjoyed looking at the roadside activity for a change…



William hasn’t been in Uganda for some years, and even he is shocked by the differences between it and his country. Kenya is forging ahead in development, while this wrecked country is deteriorating by the day with its corrupt, disinterested, uncaring government that works only for its self-enrichment under its staggeringly wealthy 37-year president. “Eh! If only Alex, Precious, JB and I could each pick a corner of this compound,” he exclaims, gesturing to the green pleasures of Rock Gardens, “if we could pick it up and transport it to Kenya! You’d be millionaires very FAST!”


For a week, I had some trouble starting the Mosquito. I always fear mechanical problems as I’ve so little aptitude for engines. I diagnosed the problem to the starter relay or starter motor, but felt unconfident about even the simplest surgery. Alex found me reasonable fundi (repair-person) who seemed to know his way about my bike. Kato has a small kiosk workshop in Kapchorwa, but came the ten miles to Rock Gardens to work on the machine, taking the starter motor away to open it up. Next day, he’d found a replacement armature and brushes, but still I couldn’t start the engine from cold, so while taking William back to Kapchorwa to find a matatu to Kenya, I called at Kato’s workshop. Of course, all work is done in the dust on the street-side, but he appears knowledgeable and better than most, whose only tool is a hammer. He’s now ordered me a new rear tyre and stopped some of the rattles (the engine was loose!) and so far I trust him. He’s tried to fix the coil connections, which may be the problem, but I’m happy to find a local fundi who seems to know what he’s doing, now Rico is the other side of the mountain.

A couple of days later, the Mosquito starts first push of the button, as it used to. Somewhere, he’s done something right at least.


Trees planted just a year ago are now beautiful.

Then it’s back to overseeing appalling ‘workmen’ at home. Tom, the wood butcher is making doors for the latrine. With him is a so-called mason. Having lost my rag already, I can’t bear to watch. The ‘mason’ is plastering around the crooked door frames, complaining about our cement mix – only about 1:4 instead of about 1:2 – I’m sure as soon as we turn our backs more cement goes in. He’s plastering above a heap of chippings and rubble, into which his fresh smooth plaster falls. It’s dreadful to watch. “For god’s sake, CLEAN up between processes!” I exclaim angrily. “THINK!” He’s here for hours and does almost nothing. I’d’ve finished the lot in a couple of hours. Meanwhile, a sign-writer comes to repaint the sign to go at the roadside in town. He brings an ‘assistant’, who does nothing – very slowly. They buy paint and while the ‘assistant’ holds the sign upright in the middle of the garden, the sign-writer paints both sides and the legs liberally with gloss paint thinned with copious petrol from my Mosquito. “Just watch,” I murmur to Alex, “soon they’ll wonder how to move it, covered in wet gloss paint!” We chuckle as they struggle with the unwieldy sticky board and carry it, paint on hands, to lean it against a tree. “No planning… EVER!” Maybe tomorrow, he’ll paint one side against the tree, then turn it round – or maybe he’ll have the ‘assistant’ hold it upright again… Or maybe he’ll never turn up again.

Hinges fixed with three inch nails and firewood.

Wood Butcher Tom bends nails and bodges brackets for bent hinges from firewood, a four inch nail the answer to all fixings. He hammers nails crookedly through varnished doors and bends the ends over on the inside. He planes door planks and frames from timber that’s so freshly cut it’s damp to the touch. I draw a ledge and brace door for him – a first for Sipi. He looks mystified, but makes three doors for the latrine. They might be the only doors in Sipi that don’t sag and drag on the floor. I explain the dynamics of the door; how the brace goes outwards to support the swinging edge. He hangs the first door, while I oversee. Then I go away to do something else and come back and find him hanging the second door upside down… He’s hammering in three inch nails to hold the hinges; the heads are too big and the door won’t shut. He’s about to beat another three inch nail through the door and bend the end over to hold the bolt. “Use a short nail!” I shout. “Think what things look like, covered in bent nails!” The bolt and hasp for the kitchen door are fixed with THIRTEEN bent over nails. He uses a six inch nail as a chisel to make the hole for the bolt. “You call yourself a carpenter, but you’ve no tools! Buy some tools, make life easier for yourself, get the work done faster, get more work: get more money! It’s economics…” No one looks. No one sees. No one plans.

13 bent nails hold the kitchen door bolt.

And the sign-writer measures the steel sign board with his finger span, for transfer to a computer programme… He hasn’t a tape measure. No one invests in even the simplest tools to aid their work. With forethought, planning and management so rare on this continent and absent in uneducated Uganda, no one sees the advantage to their career as they look at immediate gratification in the pennies they earn from their dreadful work.

I can’t stand to watch: it’s SO frustrating. I could do all these jobs quicker and better myself. Here in Sipi, I often do.

The only tool that is never stolen is the spirit level I bought in Kenya. No one uses one…


The gardens flourish…

The kitchen progresses well, and the toilet block too. I devised a gents and ladies’ urinal, using cement, and we screeded the floors. Butcher Tom managed finally to get the three doors fitted right way up. We’ve employed just young Abraham who, at 16 is a better worker than them all. He should, of course, be attending school, but his father disappeared some time back and has never been heard of again. He’s a tiny, slight lad, but willing and keen. Unlike his seniors, who all know best and certainly don’t want introduction to any new ideas, he follows instruction and even anticipates next steps as we work. He’s the only Sipi worker whom I have seen run across the garden to fill another jerrycan of water! A day’s work in Sipi is rewarded by about £3 for most labourers, up to perhaps £5 for a ‘master’ – of whom there are actually none at all…

Jonathan Bean Cheptai

Shopping for what materials are available is frustrating indeed. Buying the plumbing bits we needed for the kitchen sink took the best part of an hour in a shambolic store. The woman assistant tried to serve three customers at once, knew where nothing was and had to search through sacks and bins of fittings, had no prices to hand, having to phone a remote boss somewhere for all advice and costs. Receipts have to be written in old ledgers with carbon copies; there’s no packaging except the ubiquitous flimsy black plastic bags. In another scruffy concrete block lock-up, we bought tiles and adhesive. I suggested plain white for the kitchen counters, and on getting home, find patterned white. No one cares, except Alex and me, but we’re not prepared to go the ten miles back and argue it out, so the kitchen gets patterned counters. We purchase timber trims: 20 feet or so of sort-of four by three quarter inch wood, cut crooked on a circular saw and ‘planed’ badly from wood so wet it’s almost weeping.

Alex fires up the water heater for our evening comfort.

Back home, I try to make sense of Tom the wood butcher’s uneven, unsquare, crooked woodwork. I’m expected to apply tiles to this mess! Happily, I am resourceful and manage to sort it out more or less. Actually, despite the frustration at having always to correct others’ work, I secretly enjoy this sort of bodgery; I’m good at it: scenery making has always involved a certain informality of work practices. We work into the early evening, and by the end the kitchen begins to look better, with some right angle corners here and there, a novelty in Sipi. I’ve got the trims on, all bodged onto spacers of bits of firewood, and not a screw to be seen: you can’t even BUY them in Sipi, so everything is hammered together with flat-headed nails (you can’t get pins or lost-head nails: no one even knows what they are in Uganda). I do my best and am privately rather chuffed to make a silk purse from Tom’s pig’s ear. Well, maybe not SILK, but order at least…


Overloading is an art form here.

Riding to Kapchorwa one morning, people are running from all corners. There’s been another accident on the road, not an uncommon event in this country in which derelict vehicles often run out of control through lack of maintenance, appalling driving and total lack of care by any authority in this uncaring country. Not many are insured: it’s cheaper just to pay the expected bribe to any police who check. There are well over 1000 boda-boda taxi motorbikes in Kapchorwa, a town of 50,000 inhabitants. I doubt 10% have insurance. In the last two or three weeks, just here around Sipi village, a lorry ran out of control in the night and ended up crushing a house below the roadside, causing the death of a child: the truck’s still there, wheels in the air. A truck knocked down a pedestrian youth and killed him and drove on. A boda rider was killed, racing his friend on the main road – and now everyone’s running in ghoulish excitement and voyeuristic thrill to see another accident. We ride through a throng of perhaps 300 people rubber-necking, with nothing better to do than be titillated by a new horror. A container wagon is wheels up below the road, the cab crushed to a twist of steel. Later, we find that the driver was freewheeling downhill – with a hugely heavy 40 foot container of tyres headed for Kenya, when inevitably the brakes failed. Sadly, in self-administering the death penalty for his stupidity, he’s widowed a boda rider’s wife and orphaned two small children too. Says Alex, “They freewheel to save fuel. Then they can syphon it out and resell it at their destination, because the owner of the truck will have estimated the fuel use…” Of such is the blanket of comprehensive corruption in this extraordinarily corrupt land – where the examples from the VERY top, and all the way down the ladder are that corruption pays much better than work. Junior police officers are frequently tasked with a certain financial target for their desk-bound bosses before they can take their own ‘reward’. I often watch money change hands, without much attempt at disguise. It’s universal in Uganda, the norm. The country runs on corruption. Uganda’s not a ‘developing country’, it’s undeveloping year by miserable year.


The new kitchen. Produced in difficult circumstances in a few days’ work. HARD work…

Just as well that my best relaxation is to be busy, for I’ve certainly left some changes at Rock Gardens. Now we just need customers… I’ve completed the latrine block (both the round thatched cottages have their own simple bathrooms. The latrine is for events or campers); I’ve built from scratch – with help/ hinderance from local ‘builders’ – the new kitchen; created the earth bread oven, and the hot water heater, the lighting of which has become a norm in the late afternoon. It doesn’t take long to warm water for bathing after a long day of dirty hard work. I made a clean concrete water point around the tap. I’ve decorated the sign-writer’s rather boring signboard for the village roadside, and written the new website. And I’ve eaten bread and local honey for breakfast for the past four mornings!

Precious prepares the bread tins.

Some days, I haven’t left the compound. I feel good from all the activity, despite an inability to shake off the pesky parasites that have temporarily invaded my guts; medication doesn’t seem to work and I’m resisting antibiotics as long as I can… My energy is back, which is a good sign and the loss of an inch or more from my stomach is always welcome. Space for decent beer next month!

The first bread production at Rock Gardens.

After two more weeks of working on what’s now as much my investment as Alex’s, I must ride back to Kitale to regroup for the next section of my journey. I must be in Tanzania to direct and dress the filming, and take photos for my American colleagues between the 27th February and the 5th of March. That’s the nearest dates I have as yet. I’ve decided to ride across Uganda, dropping back to Sipi overnight on the way. From here it’ll take me three days to ride to the far border. I’ve determined on this route because In 2017, I rode through the top of Tanzania from Rwanda to Kenya, and had some trouble persuading customs men to allow me to import my motorbike to their country. Confused as to what to do, they allowed me a transit permit only. This time, I can’t afford to arrive at the Kenya/ Tanzania border to find import difficulties, as the journey from there is over 1000 kilometres. If I’ve problems at the Uganda/ Tanzania border, the hospital is only 30 kilometres away. I can leave my piki-piki in Uganda and continue by public means if necessary.

Aunt Khalifa witnesses the first loaves.
Aunt Khalifa, Precious, and young Abraham test the bread.


But, rather more urgently than border problems, I have a difficult ride back to Suam border. My Mosquito is sick. As soon as I ride away from Rock Gardens, I sense that there’s a problem. The bike seems to lack power on hills, even on the slight rise from Rock Gardens. Alex has thoughtfully washed the machine for me before I got up, maybe there’s water somewhere and it’ll burn off. I get to the tar road and am struggling up the hills, but maybe it’s the very strong headwinds? I nurse the machine to Kapchorwa and beyond. It’s straining. Then, after 15 kilometres, it stops. I fiddle uselessly, and then it starts again. Later, it starts to misfire in the middle of nowhere. I creep to the next village, Chesower. I remember that Kato, the Kapchorwa mechanic, had to fit a Chinese spark plug, but in Mbale I remembered to buy a Japanese one. I swap them and for 20 kilometres more, all is well. Still a bit sluggish on hills, but 80% better. I’m happy again.

Six kilometres from the Kenya border, the engine fails completely, no spark… After a while, I negotiate a tow with Wilson, a boda-boda rider. He asks £10, but agrees to £2! We set off, using a locally woven rope. I can’t tie the rope as I’d like, with an ‘escape route’, whereby I can release the tow rope, because of the silly plastic fairing on top of my bars, so we must make do. That’s the cause of my undoing when the rope gets caught around my brake disc and I am pulled heavily to the floor, bending the headlight bracket. Oh well, I bounce, which is all that matters, and we manage to get to the border. “Tow me to the Kenya side!” I call to Wilson, waving an explanatory hand at the police as we pass Uganda immigration. I can’t escape after all, and I’ll come back for the formalities.

The road to Kenya.

Chir-Chir is the Kenyan immigration officer. He’s very obliging. I have to plug in my charger: I’ve 6% on my Bezos phone and I want to ring Rico before I make decisions. Rico suggests I come on to Kitale by matatu, leaving the bike at the border. We’ll go for it tomorrow with his big Pajero. “It’ll fit! And maybe you can ride it if we find the problem.”

So I get the slowest matatu in Kenya and get myself home to Kitale. It’s now seven at night, I left Rock Gardens as 1.00, and I’m tired and out of sorts. At the matatu station I am mobbed: a mzungu who might need transport elsewhere. “GO AWAY!” I shout at the fifty touts who surround me. I haven’t patience any more. I get a boda-boda home. The house is busy, Faith, one of the original ‘Rico Girls’ is visiting from Berlin, where she lives now. She’s with her six year old son, a friend and her son. Then there’s Rosa from Netherlands, who works in Nairobi, an old friend of the family, plus the family, and now me.

Faith is a smart, intelligent young woman. I remember her 20 years ago in Lodwar, the hot, dry desert town in the northern deserts. She’s a Turkana woman, handsome and delightful. Her son has a great head of wavy hair as well. Her mother was a sister of Rico’s first wife, a Turkana woman, Anna, who died some years back. Faith’s father died in a road accident before she was born, and her mother in childbirth. She was born an orphan, and adopted by Rico into this extraordinary extended family I admire so much. It’s good to see her.


Next day, Sunday, Rico and I drive the 30 miles back to Suam border and work on the Mosquito. We think we find the problem: the ignition unit dribbles out water when we lift it out. It’s fitted upside down and Alex’s washing has flooded it. I’m proud that I wondered if the cause was the washing, but I don’t make a deal of it because it could have been me who refitted it upside down! It’s not the only problem perhaps, maybe I need a new coil AND ignition unit. It’s Sunday, there’s nothing we can do but load the bike into the car and bring it home. We’ll have to face it tomorrow: see if the parts can be sent up from Nairobi. I’ve the dealer’s number, maybe they’ll cooperate and I can ride to Tanzania after all, but I must also have a back-up plan of public transport… It’s funny, I’m not reacting well to this idea that I now have responsibilities to others on my journey. It’s not the way of these safaris in Africa: I like the freedom and independence.

So this rather ‘different’ trip enters it’s last phase, less than a month to go now. I’ve not done much joy riding on my Mosquito, just riding between Kitale, Kessup and Sipi: some good rides but mainly known ones. My concentration has been on my friends, some big hikes and work at Rock Gardens.

This next couple of weeks, with responsibilities to others, will be a test of my resolve. My head’s not really in work mode at present… Still, it’ll pay off most of the investment I’ve made at Rock Gardens this year.

Now, I just have to see if I’ll ride to the remote hospital site in north west Tanzania, or have to go by matatu and bus…

One of my favourite photos this year. The mobile phone is such a revolution for Africa, which largely missed the landline years. Now the phone brings fascination, sometimes enlightenment and often misinformation and junk. Here, in an image oddly biblical and medieval, Precious, Keilah and Jonathan and a neighbour’s child watch a video by the fire pit.



Life is good!

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.

Bread delivery by boda-boda.


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 never-to-be-completed road to the valley

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.

Women’s work – from a young age they must get used to the fact…

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?

Hours downhill – but everything that goes down must come back up…

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.

The dazzling valley road just goes on and on, then on…

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 is so deep. But look carefully at the track we must climb later!

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.

An elaborate bed but not much else.

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.

Basic and HOT!

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.

Drinking motatina with Hilary, 80 year old John, and another Hilary.

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…

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.

Going up…

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…

VERY 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.

Acanthus generally only grows over 2000 metres


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.

A ‘road’ spotted for a future journey!

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.

An admiring crowd meets the mzungu celebrity

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..?”

‘Dodgy places’…



Sometimes I feel like the Pied piper in rural Uganda, where most children have never seen a mzungu before.

Alex and I like to walk, the best legacy of the pandemic, when I came to understand how much we miss in our vehicular haste. Walking, I can tune in with the landscape – and in Africa with the people too. It’s an influence I’ve brought to Alex, for no one here would consider walking for any reason but necessity. “Eh, these white men, nothing better to do but walk!” is a comment Alex has overheard and translated in passing. He now occasionally takes a long walk when he’s stressed – but he tells no one what he’s doing!

Wonderful country for hiking.

Once a week or so, when I stay in Sipi, we take a long hike. It’s great country for it: with the cliffs and expansive views, the huge plains way below to the west and north, and thick vegetation to wander amongst up on the mountain slopes – and then there’s the avenues of excited children we find everywhere in this child-filled land.

Two year old Rosemary is fascinated by the mzungu and greets formally with a curtesy.

Having completed the kitchen floor, it needs to cure before the next phase: ideal time for a hike. Alex has worked out a route that will take us deep into the valley to the north, and then circle back into the steep slopes above which Sipi stands. That’s the only trouble here: we have to end the day with a 1000 foot clamber after several hours baking down below. By the final cliffs, where we sometimes have to teeter up ladders of twisted timbers, or steel stairways, I am stumbling along – but it’s all part of the challenge…

It’s hot and dry, hiking down to the great plains below Sipi, but the sense of space is energising.

This walk must have been little shy of 20 miles, in a hot dry region, the temperature soaring as we drop into the valley. As we walk down the winding highway from Sipi village, we are joined by a middle aged man, who is going our way. Alex knows him, he’s called Kenyatta, having been born in 1963 at the time of independence. He walks the next two or three hours with us. At one point, we stop for water and peanuts at his farmland, a bumpy patch of hillside far from his Sipi home. Here, he has a mud-hut shelter perched on a terrace with fine views to the north.

Kenyatta’s farm hut and a welcome pause for water and groundnuts. Abraham, Alex and Kenyatta.
A fine view over the Karamajong plains.

We sit on local chairs and drink water he has carried a quarter of a mile uphill from an irrigation water pipe. We’ve also been joined today by Abraham, the small 16 year old who’s been helping with the kitchen work. He’s a nice lad, quiet but hard working, unlike so many. He doesn’t manage the whole distance, and we have to send him back on a boda-boda still eight miles from Sipi – his legs are short and he’s flagging. He carries back three huge sweet pineapples we buy from the back of a pick up for 50 pence each – the best ones I’ve eaten this year. The pineapples I’ve been buying in Kenya come from Uganda too, but they cost nearly three times as much as these.

Dropping down the steep dusty paths through the rocks, we come across men yelling and shouting, chasing three big baboons from their crops. Nasty aggressive animals, they watch us from treetops and rocks and Alex is amusingly afraid they are humanly grudging enough to throw rocks back at us as we walk under the cliffs from which they are warily observing us. We can imagine the anger and challenge in their eyes. We put on an involuntary spurt as we pass beneath them!

Perhaps it’s a vindictive baboon!

Finally, we are down to the plain that stretches far, far north across the Karamajong region to the borders of Sudan. I tried to ride that way three years ago, but was beaten by mud after some hard riding. Now, where we finally emerge from the footpaths onto a wide dirt road, they are building a new road – more Chinese debt. We must walk along this road in clouds of dust raised by the big gravel trucks, tedious walking for three miles or so, and when we reach the junction of the tar road that climbs back up into the mountains, I urge Alex that we should take a boda-boda some of the way back up the tar road; there’s no pleasure in walking the tarmac verge beside smelly grinding trucks. The hill is a very long slope, climbing hundreds of feet; I’ve ridden it a number of times, one-up on 200ccs, and it’s a gear-shifting experience. Now we number: the rider, Abraham, Alex and me, with three big bags of groceries that Abraham will take home while we get off and walk the final rises. We’re on a 100cc motorbike with me on the rear carrier. It’s first gear stuff. Slow.

Alex and I alight part way up the hill and take to dust roads once more. I’m happy here, trudging through the matoke trees past earth and stick homes with corrugated roofs. There’s a huge wedding on in the district, so the houses are quiet, just children everywhere, running to greet the very rare mzungu or hiding in fear. So far, we’ve existed the whole day on various mugs of local water from houses as we passed, a plastic beaker of lumpy local drinking yoghurt called bongo (drunk in a scruffy dusty village coincidentally called Nabongo) and a handful of homegrown peanuts. Now we are flagging, even Alex, half my age. We have a thousand feet to climb before I can sit down with my Tusker and relax, at the end of maybe 18 or 19 miles of uneven walking…

Shamadi, met on the road. A joker and charmer!

By the time I get up from beside the fire pit three hours later, I can stagger just about as far as bed. But it’s a grand way to experience the countryside, the thousands of people I have greeted, the hundreds of hands I have shaken and the many – frequently untranslated – jokes of which I have been the butt on this hot, parched, dusty day in rural Uganda.


Next day, we clamber 700 feet back down the cliffs to visit Alex’s friend Tom, the wood-butcher who’s built much of the 1818 bar and restaurant and done much of the so-called carpentry at Rock Gardens. He’s asked us to go, as no mzungu has ever been down to the community around his home. Fortunately, I don’t mind being a display item to amuse the hundreds of children.

On display! Boys watch from outside as I relax.

It’s difficult to describe the phenomenon of just how many children there are in Uganda. The vast majority of humans I see in any day are children and babies. It’s fun to be such a celebrity, but it’s shocking too, what it means for their future. Most are poorly educated, and by their mid to late teens will be already producing multiple children – probably seven and often more. They too will be sketchily educated, and producing another generation even before they reach school-leaving age. But what subsistence farmer, scratching maize from semi-vertical patches of rocky soil can afford school fees or even has time for stimulating the young brains of these giant families? The churches, of myriad scamming money-making cults, do nothing to stem the tide, male dominated Islam even less. If a woman doesn’t produce, she is likely to be abandoned and sent home (it’s never the man’s fault of course) and the man will ‘remarry’. Precious tells me the story of a mother crying on her knees in the school bursar’s office, whose husband was supposed to take the money to school but diverted and drank it all away with his male friends (£175!); shame set in too late and by then the man had found a sympathetic ‘other woman’ and disappeared. It’s a common story here. Men have so little responsibility and dump all their pride and aggression on poor uneducated women. I’m proud that Precious, born to a large poor family and lesser educated than Alex, is now withstanding extreme peer pressure to produce more than her two delightful (intelligent, stimulated, educated, very-good-English-speaking and bright) children. This couple have decided to give their children a future in which they have an opportunity to achieve the dreams that were so limited for them, Precious with twelve siblings and Alex with eight, plus three half siblings by other mothers. It’s a large part of the reason I support this couple: they actually think ahead, unlike most Ugandans, who bow to family and peer pressure – called, as with many of the other socially costly bad practices of life here, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’.

Children are intrigued by the hair on my arms. Pity about the handkerchief/ cap! Sadly necessary on these walks by the Equator.


The sick old lady died down in her dingy earth and stick hut on the slopes below us. Now the family must have, by ‘tradition’, a huge funeral that will cost perhaps £1000 – in this subsistence community. “Do you think THIS is tradition?” I ask Alex as the noise begins: highly amplified techno-rapp music that will pound through the next three nights, disturbing the entire neighbourhood. Everyone is expected to donate, school fees and hunger not withstanding. Family farmland is sold, valuable cows slaughtered – in the name of ‘culture’. It’s not ‘culture’, it’s pure pride and arrogance. Every funeral must be bigger. Those who donate are praised by the master of ceremonies for their generosity – in front of all the so-called mourners, who are really there not to show grief and support but for the prospect of a free meal.

On burial day, Alex becomes MC, this educated younger member of the clan. He tells me of the unseemly fights that ensued over the free food and shares with me his record of the accounts so far. They include (and remember, this is explained as ‘tradition’):

  • Tents and chairs hiring £160
  • Music system £93
  • Petrol (for power) £50
  • Coffin £100
  • Cement, sand, blocks, tiles, iron sheets for tomb £93
  • Food £186

Total – so far… £685

This, in a poor, badly educated rural subsistence farming community where money is always the scarcest commodity.

“If you tell the people to give this money when the old lady is sick – you saw her yourself – nobody will give 50 shillings! That money would fund a child through most its future school life,” says Alex wisely. “Or given to a school, or orphans…” adds Precious. In this country, education is a low priority for most people. Every tiny hamlet has several ‘churches’, usually tin shacks closed all week and less leaky than the majority of crude houses, but no schools. There are far more ‘churches’ in these countries than schools – formed by self-elected ‘pastors’ as a business (that pay no taxes), frequently funded by right wing ‘religious’ Americans, exploiting the poor education and ignorance of the country-people. The chief pastor demanded £7 – considerably more than most earn in a day, for transport from just down the road (a boda-boda would be perhaps 1000 shillings – 20 pence) to come to lead the funeral prayers. The whole shebang is no more than a money-making opportunity; the funeral a chance of free food and drink or to demonstrate status and ‘generosity’ of the Big Men. With no election due, there were at least no politicians to make capital from it by distributing tenpenny bribes to potential voters but I could hear, from half a mile away as I worked on the kitchen, the amplified rants of fake pastors and self-serving speeches from local men of ‘status’.

This is what ‘tradition’ has become in this crumbling country. Life here can often be very depressing. Despite my pleasure at everyday times in the family, I am VERY thankful I don’t have to live here in this decrepit, backward land, ruled by avarice and corruption. Poor Alex. Integrity brings such slower rewards.


The rustic kitchen develops.

While Alex acted MC for the burial day at the huge noisy funeral, I worked with wood-butcher Tom on the kitchen. It’s one of the most frustrating events of recent life. If Tom can do things awkwardly and illogically, he does. He wants no new ideas and is resistant to experiment, just content to do things ‘the way we do it here’. And no one wants to actually WORK! They prevaricate and get distracted by phones, expectation of food, chatting with visitors – and they NEVER clean up. Alex laughs that most of the dreadful ‘workers’ who come because they think the mzungu has a lot of money, never come for a second day: I make them clean their tools and the worksite before they leave, and I lead and drive them into much harder work than they are prepared to do. As a consequence of my energy we use a changing succession of inept, unmotivated labourers! Alex, returning in the evening from the funeral was astonished that I had driven Tom to do so much in a day. We had raised the entire kitchen structure of posts and roofed it with zinc sheets.

“This would usually take him three days! Mama Keilah, how long would it take Tom to do this work himself?” exclaims Alex.

“Four days at LEAST!” replies Precious as Alex laughs that I even made Tom use local tree posts. “Eh, if I’d told him he must use local posts, he would have REFUSED! He’d want me to buy cut wood. Expensive!”

Bread oven, table and water heater. A bit medieval maybe, but novelties in Sipi.

Meanwhile, I am also constructing a mud bread oven from a book I found in a Totnes charity shop. We’ve had fun with that, as the mud needs to be worked into a paste with the feet on a tarpaulin. One day, we worked just as a family, the children and Precious joining in with gusto and a lot of jollity, treading mud, dancing and singing. Family life at its best: all focussed on our project. Precious and Alex are desperate to be able to make real bread like that they ate on their visit to Kitale where they enjoyed Adelight’s bread, a tradition that’s travelled the world: Joy Bean’s bread recipe.

Dancing in mud. Rach, Precious and Jonathan Bean 2


The two children have been a constant source of delight. Now there’s an admission! Keilah is five and a half, and Jonathan just over four. They are intelligent and stimulated and being close in age play happily together with shrieks of fun. In the evening, they come with long stories from their lively imaginations. Jonathan talks endlessly and noisily, while Keilah is quiet and very charming. She’s a pretty girl and warm-hearted. Each morning I get a run and a hug. JB copies most of what she does. Both speak English fluently already, as well as the local languages. They are bright. When we work together they have the greatest glee: with trowel and cement they help as they know and quickly learn. They are usually filthy beyond description by the end of the day in this mud and dust-filled homestead. They are unsophisticated, just small cheerful children. There’s not a ‘device’ in sight and apart from JB’s football, there’re no toys: Keilah’s Chinese plastic recorder and Jonathan’s Chinese plastic police car, so coveted at Christmas, are things of the past, already in local landfill – buried with all the other Chinese plastic rubbish in the pit from the old latrine. The football, however (leather and NOT made in China), was an inspired present, sometimes bringing together the whole family in a spirited game amongst the shrubs and flowers of our burgeoning gardens.


In a desperate need to focus on something more than cement, sand and stone, I suggested another hike. This was one of our hardest. It’s magnificent scenery for hiking, but very hard work, along the edges of this high escarpment. We walked for eight hours, probably about 18 miles again, but that doesn’t tell the half of the effort, for we must constantly rise and fall over these lower slopes of Mt Elgon, and sometime descend the cliff faces, only to clamber up again further along our walk.

Lovely country for hiking, but a LOT of up and down!

Our destination was one of Alex’s sister’s home, around three great outcrops of the escarpment. We’ve hiked this way before, but every route is different. With the expansive plains of northern Uganda down to our right, we scrambled part way into the valley between the first two outcrops and took to a dust road through endless small villages and scattered habitations. I said before, it’s difficult to describe the experience of being in a country with such a VAST population of children. Where we walk in these rural areas, most children have never seen a mzungu before. Cries surround us: “Come and see! There’s a mzungu coming! Come and see!” Sometimes, it’s not just the children either. Hundreds upon hundreds come from their fields and doors to observe the phenomenon, to greet, shake hands or just stare. Old ladies call out in their local languages (and those change every few miles. Just four or five miles from home, Alex – a true linguist – is struggling), “Thank you for the visitor to our village!”

Ignatius harvesting ginger.

We come across Ignatius and his family harvesting ginger on an embankment beside the road. We poke and investigate, and walk on carrying a couple of kilos of ginger for our masala tea, that I enjoy so much. Two kilos from Ignatius direct costs us 40 pence. Alex is delighted; in town it’d be at least £2. And that £1.60 can feed the family for the day or two. Later, at Alex’s sister Doreen’s home we drink coffee grown right here on the slopes around the mud house, in her shamba.

The views are spectacular. On our left, the great cliffs soar towards the bright blue, sun-filled sky. Trees teeter along the top edge of the sometimes overhanging precipices. It’s very dramatic, this enormous volcanic scenery. It’s green, green, green, heavily cultivated by the legions of subsistence farmers wherever there’s a chance to carve out a tiny field or terrace. And amongst the thick growth hundreds of basic mud and stick homes with rusty zinc roofs are hidden. Sadly, one gets used to wading through acres of plastic refuse: it’s everywhere underfoot and we crunch on single-use bottles, and black plastic bags wave everywhere. Broken Chinese products litter the slopes amongst the graceful matoke trees. I realise that I’ve become almost blind to the filth. I have to frame it out of my photos.

Playing marbles.

We are warmly welcomed when we stop for water here and there at houses we pass. Children come to stare from doorways, many of them reacting to my outstretched hand of greeting, but others running away with squeals and wails of fear. Some children approach bravely, intrigued by the odd being passing among them. Many rub the hairs on my arms in fascination, unlike the smooth skins of their own race. They like to feel the ‘pig’ hair on my head too when they get opportunity. Alex once wrote about his walks, when he takes along his phone camera, inspired by me to photograph people, “But I am not a slebrity like you!”

The great plain stretches FAR below.

At Doreen’s house, we stop for a couple of hours. She insists on a meal to follow her own coffee. We must submit to rice and some stringy meat in a stew – ALL meat here is stringy, a trial for my teeth; I haven’t an appetite in the heat of the day but I must make a show. When we leave, we are carrying a kilo or two of fresh coffee beans and a large bunch of just-plucked spinach.

Hard country…

Doreen and her husband, Leonard, will accompany us to the base of the huge ladders that cling to the cliff 500 feet above their home. High on the mountainside, at the bottom of the first steep steel ladder, we say goodbye to Doreen, but Leonard volunteers to guide us several more miles on our way. He’s a pleasant fellow, a subsistence farmer, intelligent and a good conversationalist with lots of local information. He and Doreen have four children I think, but as we walk, Leonard gives me the shock of the year so far. I am talking to him about the VAST population of children in this country, with 55% of the population under 18 years old, second in the world only to poverty-stricken Niger…

And then Leonard tells me that his father has 60 children!!! With ten ‘wives’ (aka baby-making machines) he has SIXTY children. Leonard is from the most recent wife… I doubt the father can even remember – maybe not recognise – that many children. And how can he hope to give them any life but that of subsistence? Even Precious is shocked when I tell her next morning. “SIXTY?!” she exclaims. “Look how hard it is to care for TWO!” as Keilah and Jonathan race about the garden making cheerful noise. What hope is there for this crippled country?

To Alex’s laughter, I suggest that perhaps circumcision ceremonies aren’t drastic enough…


Just don’t look down!
Or over the edge…

Leonard leaves us after about five miles at a junction by a bridge. We’ve just had to drop steeply down through small farms with children shouting, “Come and look, there’s a mzungu!” Leonard is amused. He’s never walked with a mzungu before. He’ll be taking stories back to the family as he hails a boda-boda to carry him home.

Ambrose, 83, stopped us with a history lesson on Uganda’s independence
Ambrose and his friends were drinking local maize beer. It’s drunk through nasty plastic tubes and the container constantly topped up with warm water. It’s pretty disgusting (IMO)!

The sun’s getting very low and we now have to struggle up the other side of the steep valley. It’s an endless climb, accompanied by a Pied Piper groups of children dancing and joking: one of them has a small battery music speaker. It’s fun and makes us all laugh. There’s so much goodwill it’d be impossible not to enjoy such jollity, even though both Alex and I are now tired out.

We’ve another six miles or so to stagger and I realise we’ll be walking the last couple of miles in the dark. I hate that as I don’t have the night vision that most of my Africans seem to enjoy.

I’ve brought along my head torch just in case. We stumble the last miles in pretty much pitch blackness on the broken dust road. My sock’s worn through to a blister, but poor Alex admits next morning that his blisters were between his thighs! He’s an ideal, easy-going companion for these long days: intelligent and quick, friendly to those we pass, and informative about the life around us – and always willing for just one more hill.


Charcoal stove in the part-completed kitchen.

Our new kitchen is rather rustic in style, constructed from local freshly cut eucalyptus trees, with a zinc roof. I’ve built a substantial charcoal stove from stone, more heavy work. Behind it I am building the bread oven. That’s been a process adapting the instructions in the book to the – very few – tools and materials available here in rural Uganda… There is of course plenty of mud! It’s the bane of my time here: everything covered in a layer of thick red dust, until it rains and becomes slithery mud. We buried empty bottles for insulation (even those are scarce, when they must be paid for if not returned to the wholesaler) in a layer of mud-crete – earth and sand mixed and beaten smooth by various feet. Then I managed to form the brick arch. The book told me blithely to make a forma of plywood or 4×2 timbers. Yeah… Try finding anything as useful as those in Sipi. All I had was Alex to hold up the two sides as I inserted the keystone, holding it all with claggy mud.

The arch. I was proud of this in the circumstances…

Behind the arch, on the mud base I had a frustrating time forming a dome of damp sand, not easy in such a hot dry climate. We rigged up a shelter from an old piece of borrowed canvas to provide shade. We needed newspapers to cover the sand dome, and even those had to be searched for in this community. I can’t rely on a store of useful ‘stuff’ for inventing practical projects: there’s nothing here except earth – everything else must be bought (and is often unavailable anywhere closer than Kapchorwa, ten miles away), or traded for pennies from neighbours. No one shares much here: it’s very much a cash-based rural economy. Everything, even scraps of timber or stone, has a value amongst poverty. One of the most irritating aspects of working here is that the inept ‘workers’ whom we employ frequently leave their filthy work site and steal the few tools we have, most of them brought by me from the hardware supermarket in Kenya. Tom, the wood butcher, has taken our tape measure and hammer. Martin, the useless ‘mason’, has pinched our decent float and best trowel. They have to be retrieved with argument, and are always damaged and unclean. It takes patience and resolve to achieve anything here.


The two JBs get stuck in with trowels and cement.

But it’s the children who have given me so much pleasure these two and a half weeks, with their noise and energy, such that many days I haven’t left the compound. We’ve worked together, Alex and I, assisted by Rach, one of Alex’s half brothers, aged 14, Mark his bar keeper and Precious. The children have joined in with gusto, slapping cement and plaster about as they watch and learn. At this stage of life, they are lucky to have no ‘devices’, as they learn to interact and work with others or to make their own fun with their bright imaginations. In some ways, to me, this is a healthy environment that allows them to be just children for a time, although African children have many duties in the household. The persuasive influences of commercialism generally pass them by: they aren’t targeted by rampant consumer pressure and material aspiration; they have no ‘stuff’ and are dressed in grubby rags, but life is happy and carefree in a very old fashioned way, loved and fed by fond parents but free as they wish. In many ways an ideal young childhood I think.



Work continued: a second thick layer of mud and saw chippings from the eucalyptus trees that are constantly and rapaciously felled for building and firewood; a wood fired water heater from an oil drum and stone and more wood butchery by others.



Then a ride back around the big mountain after 16 cheerful, hard-working days because of a problem with my credit card. Of such are the new rules of international travel: I needed better internet to sort out my finances! Mind you, when I think back to the frustrations of my earlier world wanderings and managing money far from home – with NO internet, just dog-eared ledgers; travellers’ cheques and crumbling banknotes hidden about my body – I suppose a three hour ride in wonderful scenery is better than that time spent fretting in aged banks beneath dirt-whirling ceiling fans…


Precious cried and I rode away up the rutted red dust track, sad to leave.

The ride back to Kitale is so beautiful. Now I can blow along at speed (well, 200ccs only allows ‘speed’ to be about 50mph) on a smooth curling road, remembering from wayside topography where I used to struggle down steps of rock, twist along ledges of slippery dust and slither up and down those hills through the pine forest in an all-enveloping cloud of fine red dust. By next year, all effort will be a thing of the past. I miss the delights of the old track, but maybe as an ‘old’ rider there are advantages to the new road!


You will have noticed that this safari is different from so many others. For half a century my travels have been footloose and exploratory and except those to Navrongo, the African journeys mainly overland wanderings. These past two or three years, initially thanks to pandemic restrictions, but now through instinct, I’m finding much pleasure in concentrating my energies on those I’ve come to respect and love as family and friends. I’m also able to share my good fortune at still being employed and well paid at my age to provide a measure of independence and good education for a few people’s future. There may be some more adventurous travels in February, when I look like having a (paid plus expenses!) contract to arrange and direct some filming in Tanzania for my American associates. That will be in a far remote corner of north western Tanzania that I’ve ridden through just once before, close to the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, around the bottom of Lake Victoria from here, but maybe only a three day ride, an area I’ll be happy to explore some more. My customary good fortune continues!

Precious’s sister Rhona, JBs 1&2, Precious, Keilah, Mark the barman, and Rach.