EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – FOUR

I’M SORRY, THIS IS A GIANT EPISODE. TEN DAYS. Internet has been very shaky since leaving Addis. I’ve just gatecrashed the best hotel in Bahar Dar to steal their connection. MAKE A BIG POT OF COFFEE BEFORE YOU START!!

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Alice, who cheered me up so much!

DAY 27. MONDAY JANUARY 7th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA

This was indeed a very slow day, slowly getting my journey back in perspective. I can see now, that however much I jest about it, I am actually NOT 34 any more (my ‘metabolic age’ when measured just six years ago in America!). I must take the journey more lightly and strain my body less, especially when I am at the same time stressed by the mechanical soundness and power of my little Mosquito. For instance, I should have started out with two nights at Archers Post, where I had friendly accommodation with Rebecca, and plenty to occupy my mind in her ‘cultural village’ and so forth. I could probably have entertained myself for a day at Ziway, where I had a decent room and had made friends, however briefly, with those men in the coffee house, and with Eyasuu, who’d have loved to take me home for supper in his house. Why push myself so much? It’s just that my habit in life is to always be occupied. Even now I seldom sit and read a book or relax at home. I need activity to make myself feel useful… I hope the last few unsettling days will teach me a bit of a lesson. I wonder?

A guest house like this, that attracts most of the overland travellers in Ethiopia, is a good place to glean information for my journey: conditions of roads, where to go, what to see, how to see it. I’ve had cheerful company in young Alice, chattering away, sharing enthusiasms, wandering out to drink buna and delicious fresh avocado juice at street stalls. The streets were quiet today, this second Christmas, but the afternoon filled rather with inebriated men urinating into hedges and against lorry wheels. I counted five in a half mile walk. They were disturbing and drunkenly cheeky. 

Ethiopia is going through something of a social and political revolution right now. It’s said to be one of the fastest growing African economies. You’d judge it so by the number of gigantic high rise buildings going up, but I can see through that to the Chinese money behind it, little of which will benefit Ethiopia or be long lasting. That’s not the Chinese way in Africa. And structures of the past couple of decades are already stained and dirty, for maintenance in not a feature of Africa either: more decay and replacement. And for that, these thirty storey blocks are not very suitable. In a decade they’ll be unsightly and the facing tiles dropping off, windows cracked and flower beds filled with dead shrubs. It’s just the way it is. 

Politically, many have high hopes just now. The new prime minister is the youngest leader on the continent, at 42. He’s a new broom. He has appointed a woman president (just a ceremonial position, but still…) and half the politicians in government are women. This in Africa. But Ethiopia is different to so much of this continent: an ancient culture, somehow separate; never a colony; links back to the old religions of the Middle East and even physical structures testifying to its antiquity. That is rare on this continent where impermanency has always been the norm, and historic structures from stone are rare. The new prime minister is a reformer and tries with considerable energy to bring peace to the country, even to the extent of bringing back a political exile from USA to head the election commission. It’s an impressive start, but African politics are so volatile and very partisan that things change on an instant.

DAY 28. TUESDAY JANUARY 8th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA

Four weeks. A month since I arrived. A third of my winter trip gone. 

And today didn’t produce anything very exciting. But I am quite content to rest up, although I don’t find Addis a particularly attractive city to do it. It’s busy, with broken pavements and a lot of street children, who can be a hassle as I walk. I also need to be very conscious of pick-pockets. I was accosted quite unpleasantly the other afternoon, walking with Alice; when two young men gripped my upper arms strongly, in an attempt maybe to distract me from my pockets. I’ve not taken my camera with me in Addis. I’ll be quite happy to leave in a day or two; content too to have my passport back in my possession.

On this continent you must be content with limited achievement: one thing a day is good progress. Today I bought ‘compulsory’ insurance for riding. It’s the first country where I haven’t had to buy it at the border. Then, when I did try, everyone looked at me questioningly, as if never asked before. I spotted an office of an Ethiopian national insurer and dived in to investigate. It gave the impression that they must lose a lot of claims! But maybe it’s just that old thing of no maintenance and general slow decay. The office ranged up four dusty, decrepit floors, the one I needed seemed to be on the third. I strode up dirty staircases covered in frayed carpets. The woodwork was brown stained and dirty, the windows dense with grubbiness. Tattered furniture, broken blinds, curling lino tiles, stained ceilings and festoons of thin flex strung between light fittings with no bulbs. The staff weren’t much smarter, the elderly gentleman with whom I dealt in a crumpled suit over an open, short-sleeved, un-ironed shirt. I felt pretty smart! 

“Where’s your yellow card?” he asked. My ‘yellow card’..? I’ve travelled for a total of seven months in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania and never even SEEN a ‘yellow card’ – which, it appears, covers my basic insurance needs in all of East Africa. Oh well, over the next hour and a half, for the princely sum of £6.50, I was able to purchase a brightly coloured mauve and purple document covered in Ethiopian script, that will make me legal for a month. I want it just in case of checks by police, although those seem very rare so far. 

Hearing the accent incorrectly, I wrote down a completely inaccurate address to find the (car) mechanic recommended, so I didn’t achieve that important goal. I’d heard Batura and searched and questioned without any result, while I should have been looking for Gotera Interchange. So that’s for tomorrow. The mechanic, with whom I spoke on Alice’s phone, reckons there’ll be no parts available for my Suzuki Mosquito in any case. Maybe I can get it a service, but no parts. So I will have to take pot luck. Two overland bikers arrived here this afternoon, from Estonia. They’ve come, in several separate legs, leaving the bikes and flying back again later, from Nigeria, down the west side of the continent and now up the east. By selecting remote borders, they even seem to have travelled all this way without carnets de passages, just temporarily importing their bikes at borders and riding quickly when asked any awkward questions! “Well, just ride until it breaks! Then you’ll have to deal with it!” said the Estonian fellow – probably correctly. It’s easier, though, to say that when you are two… 

I probably have to resign myself to a journey with a certain lack of confidence in my little, somewhat rattly bike. Pity I had confidence in getting maintenance in Addis, as I could have had Sam, the kind mechanic in Marsabit, look it over. I must learn to relax and take my time, not keep bashing on in my determined way. An extra day there would have been no hardship, and might, indeed, have saved some of the angst of the later journey. But I am what I am… That’s something I HAVE learned on all these footloose journeys! 

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I’m ready to move on now. I’ve been very grateful for young Alice’s cheery company. Her bag finally arrived at the airport today, but without her tent, that Egypt Air had made her reluctantly remove from her bag. Now she has to wait to see if that arrives. Poor woman, she’s been wearing the same clothes since she arrived in the early hours of Saturday. She seems ultimately resourceful, however. She’s a real traveller in that.

DAY 29. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 9th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA

This is a crazy city filled with traffic. It’s relatively disciplined, just over filled. It makes moving about very frustrating. I rode south to look – again – for the mechanic, and failed completely to find him, despite riding 31 kilometres in the process. I think I’ve now given up. Maybe I can find one in a smaller town to get a service. The mechanic here has a car garage anyway, and seemed unconfident that he’d find any spare parts for my bike. Really, all I want is for someone to say, “Oh, it sounds fine! Stop worrying, it’ll be grand for another 2000 kilometres!” It’s my own lack of mechanical confidence that is the problem, probably not even the bike. One of the Estonian brothers said this morning, “It sounds great to me. But I’m a bad mechanic too. I was really worried about my bike. It had a very bad rattle and I worried and worried. At last I could get a service. They found a bolt rolling about on the bash plate under the engine!” 

****

Returning to the guest house I decided to just put the Mosquito away. I can travel faster without it in the city centre and it just gets hotter and hotter in traffic jams. I’m always amazed, when I stop and think about it, that I have the bottle to ride in African capital cities, or any other, come to that. But, in fact, there’s a sort of exhilaration to it all, weaving through the chaos. I managed to find a shop selling small wireless keyboards, so my diary entry tonight is less frustrating than recent nights. I’d a mind to take my iPad to them for repair, only £65, not the £150 of Nairobi, but as the saleswoman pointed out, they owe me the repair in Nairobi. 

I also pulled into a petrol station on the off chance and they filled my tank without demur. I have no idea what’s going on with this petrol shortage. There seems no rhyme nor reason. Well, so long as they give me petrol, I’m not going to question it.

****

Once on foot, I hiked  four or five kilometres to the National Museum to visit Lucy. Lucy is just about the most famous Ethiopian, although Ethiopia was far in the evolutionary distance when she lived, three million years ago. Lucy is one of our earliest ancestors. Ethiopia and the Turkana region of Kenya is tritely known as the Cradle of Mankind, and it’s from this region most of the earliest evidence of the evolution of early man originates. With Lucy, an incomplete skeleton of the diminutive early hominid – Lucy only stood a little over a metre high – with her are the tiny skeletal remains of Selam, a small child who died aged about three years, 4.2 million years ago. It takes a lot of imagination to comprehend what you are looking at. Millions of years have so little real relevance for we people who measure time in centuries at most. It puts Trump and Brexit in another perspective, however much screen time they take up, even here in East Africa. The museum was tired and dusty; a sadly typical African museum. A quick look at the rest of the faded collection was enough, and then I hiked on even further to the ethnographical museum, which is housed in the university. That was considerably more attractive – still a bit faded and dusty, but more interesting collections. I particularly appreciated the collection of carved chairs and some fine medieval religious diptychs. 

The university started in the 1960s. Before the university used the large hilltop compound, this was the royal palace. The museum is now housed in the old palace, along with various formal libraries. I was amused to be able to visit Emperor Haile Selassie’s bedroom and luxurious blue bathroom in this grand house that used to be the centre of the royal government. Now the parliament is half a mile down the street, behind trees and shrubs, discreet and guarded.

Moving about this city is irritating. Alice has been having similar problems. Hers are perhaps worse as she has Chinese features, and is rudely shouted at in the street. No one in Africa has much respect for the Chinese, who remain a race apart. I found the intrusion annoying; lots of people being rudely, and occasionally aggressively, invasive. There are very many street children, for whom a white skin is an instant attraction. There’s none of the politeness of the Kenyans or Ugandans. I find myself actively NOT engaging eye contact here in Addis, unlike the way I catch eyes all over the rest of East Africa, always, without fail, followed by smiles and laughter. Not a very attractive city so far. I’ll be happy to be off northwards as soon as I get my passport again. 

****

I’ve been trying to analyse my insecurity on this journey, for it must be obvious that my normal confidence has been suffering. I’m not usually indecisive and weak-spirited about my travels – enough to lose my most valuable possession and spend a week waiting for its redelivery. Normally, I’d have been back on my bike and collecting it. Some of the past few days have been spent in trying to trace this weakness… I THINK it is coming from a sense of increased vulnerability owing to my advancing age (heaven forbid I even mention the word!) and I can see, in hindsight, that the life event of the past year, that dominated so much of my thinking – even though I am still valued enough to be working on large museum design projects, travelling back and forth to USA and far from ‘over the hill’ professionally – was the implant dentistry. I went into that whole episode in my usual casual way, totally unprepared for the hugely invasive quality of the surgery, the knowledge that it was necessary on the grounds of physical deterioration (otherwise known as age), and the way I had to fit it all into timetables of working in America and travelling to Africa. My new metal teeth were finally fitted on the 6th December at 10.50 at night, I flew back to England on the 7th, getting home in the late evening. I left home for this journey at noon on the 10th! It was right up to the wire and a VERY stressful experience. I thought I’d overcome all the psychological and physical invasion with a quiet, relaxed time amongst my good friends in Kitale over Christmas. What I constantly forget (and try to ignore) is that these traumas take longer to rationalise as I get older. I can’t ignore that fact. I have been feeling extremely vulnerable, for almost the first time in my travels. It’s taken the cheerful company of Alice to pull me round. She sees me as an ‘inspiration’ still riding my motorbike around Africa at my ‘age’. 

Bonkers? Maybe, but I am determined not to ‘give in’ (just like my mother) until age really overcomes me – and then, hopefully, only as necessary. I’ve never had to face this age-related vulnerability before. If I can still inspire a 30 year old, then maybe I should just accept the inevitable and slow down my journeys a little? The experience will still be just as powerful, maybe more so, since all my travelling is overwhelmed by my interest in people and how they live, and that appreciation is actually INCREASED by my perceived age. I gain respect in Africa for my grey hair. Many people ask me my age, for of course, I am already seven years beyond average life expectancy here in Ethiopia. Age, in most of Africa, is supposed to bring wisdom and almost everywhere still brings respect. We aren’t written off, as in Europe and the so-called ‘developed’ world. We become elders, with an overview of life that can be passed on. This is still the case in Africa, even though the cult of youth and their knowledge is displacing our longer perspective in countries like Ghana as they rush unheeding for the so-called Western development. 

Other bikers, now almost all of another generation, seem to want my photo! Perhaps I should take comfort from that and become the mentor now, not the leader. Last week I mentally and physically exhausted myself, doing far too much; riding too long and worrying too much. I hope I have learned a lesson from all that. I must curb the desire to be always on the move and sit back and reflect a bit more..! Hah, we’ll see…

In diaries past I have written that I enjoy travelling so much more as an older person. I am now so old that I become invisible with age, and that’s sometimes an advantage. I can mix with any age, offer no sense of competition or threat to anyone and am approachable to a wider group than I ever was a younger traveller. By this age, I have no reason to put on any pretences; I know my own character well and I am emotionally secure enough not to have to worry about other people’s perceptions. I am also financially secure enough not to have to worry about the pennies as I used to do so much. My journeys were always a balance between money and opportunity. One or the other always took the hit! 

Perhaps the main lesson I have always taken from my travelling, is in dealing with things as they happen: mental resourcefulness. In the old days I had no recourse to emails or international help. I always pitch my greatest lesson in mental security to that bus accident in Colombia, in early 1974. In a bus that rolled 360 degrees (astonishingly, an experience I was to have a second time, in the 2000s in Ghana) I broke my nose – scar more visible with age – and a few ribs. Mainly, though, I shattered my confidence. I was ALL alone, terrified and upset, and had to flag down another bus to continue through those frightening mountains. The ribs slowly mended, as I lugged my backpack through the rest of Latin America but it took time for the fear to begin to subside; a week or more in which I faced a lot of things about life and my place in it. It was a difficult but hugely valuable life lesson: dealing with my fears without any help whatsoever except my own emotional strength. I always consider that I really grew up that week. 

I’ll move on on Friday and see where I get to. Maybe I’ll be in a better state and more relaxed. Well, I will be until I get in that ghastly traffic again at least! I’m ready to move now. Let’s face it, I will deal with whatever happens and maybe the little Mosquito will just keep rolling along.

DAY 30.THURSDAY JANUARY 10th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA

So often, the ‘what if’ events turn into the best stories of my travels. Losing my passport was a very large ‘what if’, but has turned into the funniest evening for a long time. 

Various calls over the past few days arranged that I should meet a man called Tedla at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant down the airport road. I spoke to him, I thought, as a representative of the small hotel chain, in one of whose hotels I left the passport. He speaks good English and told me in one conversation that he had spent time at LSE. The regional manager would drive up to Addis today, bearing my document. We would, it was finally decided, meet at about five in a large restaurant, the ‘Hiber Ethiopia”.

I suggested that Alice come along for the meeting, and then we might have a traditional meal, or coffee at least. At 4.00 I made a final call to Tedla. He’d be at the restaurant by about five, and the passport would arrive within the next two hours. Alice and I set off by minibus, a system she’s got to know quite well after several trips to embassies for visas, the reason for her prolonged stay in Addis. 

The restaurant was huge, and decorated with traditional furnishings and scenery around the walls formed to represent many of the regional sights of Ethiopia – the castles of Gondar, stele of Axum, the caves in the east. The main area, half the restaurant, was being prepared for a lavish wedding. We would have to retract to the other half. We’d thought about a chai or coffee, but spotting a bar with draft beer, we took our seats at a high table. The beer was good. Alice is good company, with her bright cheerful character. She’d worn a middle eastern shawl over her tee shirt and looked rather smarter than I did in my rather grubby, dust-filled jersey. I watched the various people, wondering how we would recognise Tedla. In my mind’s eye, he would be a smartish thirty-something businessman. But he’d probably find us: we were the only two white people there. No one came. At last, I gave him another call on Alice’s phone, watching to see if anyone around us answered. “I have seen you! I will be there immediately.” And down the corridor walked a short, elderly, white haired man. We had both been looking for younger people. 

And that was where it all became so funny and Alice and I had trouble keeping from fits of giggles for the next hour or more, until our charming host left and we could indulge in much laughter. 

Tedla wasn’t just a representative of the hotel chain; he OWNS it! It appeared he also owned the large restaurant in which we were meeting, staff deferential to him. He had stories of his times in Europe, studying in the late 60s, and his travels in many countries. Alice is extremely well travelled too, so we had many points of contact. We moved to the outside bar so Tedla could smoke and drank a couple of large glasses of beer. At some point, a flunky brought a brown envelope and I was reunited with my passport, to my great delight. 

We expressed an interest in the restaurant, the huge place that stretched the length of the building, with several floors of apartments above. The wedding preparations were beginning, but Tedla took us proudly along the dance floor, showing us the handiwork of the various scenically decorated sections. Just then, we became aware of a blaze of lights behind us and found ourselves trapped behind the entire wedding reception party as the bride and groom arrived amongst their guests. Cameras flashed and Tedla whispered that we’d probably now have to wait and exit politely, congratulating bride and groom in the reception line! Alice and I were almost hysterical when we caught one another’s eye. How had we got into this? 

We extricated ourselves with as much decorum as we could manage, and eventually Tedla had to leave, but not before finding Alice and I a table in his restaurant to take a traditional meal, a large shared tray of injera, lamb and vegetables. 

The meal was very tasty. But being evening, I had left the bulk of my money at home. This is a city full of pickpockets and minor aggression, especially after dark and we were travelling by minibuses. Neither of us had any idea how much our bill would be; this was a smart place, a cut above our usual street stalls. “Don’t worry, I’ve got money too,” Alice assured me. I called for the bill. The waiter brought it. I had enough money in my pocket; I pulled out my cheap, still un-working phone (I need a passport to get a SIM card), which has a calculator. “Do you know how much it is?” I asked Alice, starting to laugh. “It’s a total of £13.50!! Five large beers and a filling meal, shared by two!” We dissolved into laughter; it just seemed so ridiculous and such a great end to an evening that had produced so many surprises. We even rounded off with a whisky back at the scruffy guest house.

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So now I can leave on my journey. I will wait until Saturday, a whole week spent in Addis. Alice will leave, she hopes for Djibouti, then as well. She’s been the tonic I needed, right at the correct time to help. We have many similarities despite the forty year and a day disparity. A very independent young woman with a lot of cheerfulness and confidence. She must be a very capable nurse, the sort of person you’d be happy to be cared for by. I hope we’ll keep in touch, and that she will visit me in Devon sometime. She’d be a welcome guest.

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The rest of the day I spent waiting for the meeting with Tedla, walking the busy streets and broken pavements, only carrying a bit of money. I haven’t taken my camera in Addis; it’s too much to look after and I don’t really want photos of this quite run down scruffy city, above which tower gigantic new concrete structures that I fear will be Chinese white elephants, cranes swinging everywhere. It LOOKS like a vibrant economy, but does it really do much more than employ a lot of Chinese men, from the world’s most populous country? A fair percentage of Chinese are scattered across this continent, constructing roads, bridges, vast banking headquarters, public buildings – and as they do it, building up eye watering debts to the wily Chinese government machine that will have to be paid back in loss of and exploitation of mineral rights, increased pollution (for what Chinese government makes more than lip service to the environment), and in political pressure by a regime that cares nothing for human rights and fellow men, only for global wealth and power… ‘A fast developing economy’ Ethiopia may be, judging by the inward investment. But to what use will all these buildings be put? Does Ethiopia need more vast structures and sky scrapers, apart from trying to look ‘developed’? I doubt it. And I doubt they will be maintained. Already, structures doubtless erected with great show and pomp a decade or so ago, are stained and dingy, smothered in ugly signs, window linings peeling, tiles missing, concourses cracked. 

****

Time to be moving again. I hope I learned a lesson or two this week. I hope I can relax into my journey for the next two or three weeks. 

DAY 31. FRIDAY JANUARY 11th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA

Happily, a final day in this big, rather unattractive city where, at one point today I had to angrily fight off two pickpockets – and it ended on a higher note when I met a new ‘friend’, Eyob. 

Alice, cheerful Alice, who’s been so much help this week in the rediscovery of my travel spirit, and I met for coffee at Tedla’s large restaurant. I’m pleased we did, since Tedla was there and as I have written before, going back to places is important in Africa. it shows respect and friendship. Alice then left to see if they would grant her a visa for Djibouti – which, much to her excitement, as the process has been tedious, they did later in the afternoon. I set out to walk back up the busy airport road to the only motorbike shop we have spotted in our peregrinations. Needless to say, it was closed for the lunch-break, so I had to kill an hour in a coffee shop before going back and meeting one of the staff, Eyob. I wanted a bike pump (I usually bring my compact, valued BMW one, but forgot), and a long lever for emergency repairs. Neither, it seems, are available in Addis – nor are any parts whatsoever available for Suzuki motorbikes, unless ordered overseas and flown in through the airport and all that entails. Even Nairobi is better than that. Anyway, Eyob said there was a knowledgeable mechanic and we could go there, ten kilometres through the crazy city traffic. He climbed onto the back of the Mosquito and we set off, a mad journey in this appalling traffic that I have tried to avoid this week. You move about as fast on foot, with a lot less stress. Eyob knew his city so we dived into and out of short cuts, slowly making our way to the north of the central city. In a noisy, dirty backstreet, we found the mechanic. He listened to the Mosquito, diagnosed the noise that concerned me as coming from a noisy valve but reckoned it offers no immediate threat and can be dealt with by a full service when I inevitably return through this horrid city. “Strong engine!”

Eyob then guided me back to the centre and out the other side towards his home. We drank a couple of beers and then he took me to his house. He lives in a residential area in a small single storey house round a dry yard. Painted pink and built from concrete block, it seems to have about three rooms – fairly typical, I imagine, for a middle class worker here. His wife speaks some English too, and works importing goods from the Arab states for sale. They have three children, aged about four to nine; the little girl, aged six, very charming. We conversed to the inevitable background of loud TV in the room – the Americans shooting up the Taliban, winning another cinematic war, as they always do, with a lot of shouting and explosions. The children would understand nothing of the story – if there was one – but the special effects, the casual killing, the predominance of the victorious westerners, the opinions and the none-too-subtle racial manipulation of the gung-ho story would be sinking inexorably in… 

We sat in heavy armchairs, mats on the floor (I’d removed my big boots) and the children clambered about their father. Jesus gazed sentimentally down from the wall and the TV blared. Eyob’s wife busied herself with the coffee through the door and Eyob encouraged his children to speak to me in English, which they all learn at school. The yard and its big steel gate kept out prying eyes although I have no doubt a crowd had gathered. My welcome was full and warm. As we rode about the city, taking much of Eyob’s afternoon in a favour, I had been wondering how I should pay him; it’s so ingrained in our western mentality that time is money. As the afternoon progressed I realised that this was for friendliness, not for reward, even having to insist that I paid for the beers. Life is so different here.

Eyob’s wife prepared the coffee ceremony, the first proper one I have enjoyed. It’s a very formal event. She brought the charcoal brazier into the outer room and roasted some fresh beans, bringing the smoking results in to our TV-infested room, wafting the delicious aroma about with her hand. Then she crushed the beans and prepared the coffee in her traditional pot with the long curved spout. Meanwhile, she served freshly made popcorn, also part of the ritual. It’s a slow process, and cannot be hurried! I am expected to take three small cups – although we did actually cut it short at two as darkness was beginning to gather and I have a very bad headlight. I don’t care to ride at night unless absolutely necessary. Full of goodwill and with happy waves from the children I took off again into the traffic, with a promise to contact Eyob when I come back through Addis, as I must, as any map will show you. 

It was a pleasant look into private lives that I appreciated and left me with better impressions of this huge, ugly city. 

Tomorrow, at last, I will set off towards the north, taking my time now. The Estonian brothers rode in again today and warn me of the cold on the heights as I ride north, but also of the warmth when I reach the Blue Nile gorge, next major topographical sight on my route. I am happy to have had the mechanic give my Mosquito, if not a clean bill, at least a word of confidence. It’s been a difficult couple of weeks; I lost my usual wonder and interest. I now understand the causes and will attempt to avoid them from here. Thanks to Alice and some reflection, maybe I’ll continue back in my usual wide-eyed mode!

DAY 32. SATURDAY JANUARY 12th 2019. GERBA GURACHA, ETHIOPIA

I’m on the road again. And from mid-afternoon, after I shook loose of the appalling Addis traffic and got past some at least of the awful broken Ethiopian roads, I began to get back the spirit. The scenery became rather impressive and, despite the cold, I began to enjoy myself. But tonight’s one of those nights that I will spend the evening alone, wrapped in the blanket on the bed as I write, my feet beneath the tasteless (to me, of course; it may be the height of good taste in Ethiopia, that’s the wonder of taste and culture!) mauve and white padded satin cover. I’ll be asleep early too.

****

It was already 11.30 before I threw my leg over the bike and rode off into the traffic, amongst the worst I have negotiated in all my 23 African countries. Addis has no useful signposts at all; there are signs to other suburbs of the sprawling city, but apparently not one sign that actually tells you how to find the rest of this vast country. So I had to rely on keeping a generally northerly trajectory out of the city, climbing onto the mountain range that towers on the northern edge. At times I couldn’t believe that I was heading out on the main highway that connects most of Ethiopia to its capital; in fact, I think I probably found a scenic route out of town. It did supply some extensive views down over the capital, spread as far as the eye could see towards the southern volcanic peaks, its roofs glittering in the high sun, a pawl of dust and filth lying above it and swirling round the gigantic Chinese monstrosities of skeletal grey towers, cranes spinning in the fume-clouds above the city streets. By then I was high on the northern slopes riding between eucalyptus trees. The city was founded by King Menelik II in 1887, right up here on this mountain, which, not surprisingly, turned out to be a somewhat unsuitable place for a city – the odd royal palace maybe, but the populous wanted water supplies and flat places to work. The queen selected a more suitable place, inspired apparently, as is the prerogative of queens, by a mimosa tree… Well, I suppose the city had to be somewhere, but one wonders how quickly that mimosa got subsumed into the concrete and dust, even if it did give Addis Ababa a name: ‘new flower’. The king, more practically, introduced the eucalyptus, one of the weeds of Africa, but quick growing, useful for light building works and firewood, and the city’s nickname is apparently ‘Eucalyptopolis’, rather a mouthful, more utilised by the tourist office than its people I suspect.

The traffic slowly thinned, but it was forty miles before I really felt free of the influence of Addis and some ugly towns. By now I was very high, up around 3000 metres I think, and the air was chilly. The landscape opened out into a high, yellow-washed altiplano of very dry grass, swaying black eucalyptus, ploughed brown earth, and grass and stick homes surrounded by fences of split timber and sticks. Cattle roamed everywhere, and one of the worst driving hazards in this country are the millions of donkeys. They have no road sense and don’t seem to care anyway; known for their obstinacy, they are liable to just stand in the road while the traffic goes around them. The horizon was hazed and far far away; a suggestion of distant mountains, beyond sight. It became a huge landscape, as so often on this continent. 

I stopped for buna in a small town, where shack-like houses lined the main road, lorries klaxoning their way by in clouds of diesel fumes. I guess I was at least 9000 feet high. The air was harsh, chill and the light almost visibly violet to the eye. I picked a quiet looking stall at the end of town, where the buna ‘altar’ was laid out under an awning of sticks and stitched cement bags. A pretty young woman, Mekdes, (buna is usually the province of the prettiest youngsters) was hugely amused to have a ‘ferengi’ guest and other people soon gathered, including an English speaker, director of the local teachers, Adamu. From him I got information on my route, and the gathered villagers understood more about the old white uncle who had suddenly stopped in their midst. I do enjoy these respites, breaking a few barriers.

****

By now it was cold. I stopped on a high plain to don my waterproof jacket for warmth. I’d picked this town from my map as a suitable distance from Addis – it’s about 100 miles. I’d have liked to go further down into the desert that I’ll find on my road tomorrow, but I struck a deal that I would limit my rides, so I started today…

Soon, the scenery became wonderfully impressive. As so often is the way, I rounded a corner and a vast view burst open in front of me. My road curled down towards a mighty canyon, the Blue Nile visible far away in its bottom. It was a great moment, although it served more as a taster for tomorrow’s ride than for today’s enjoyment, as my road soon cut away, back round into rolling high plains, backed by distant blue mountains and shadowed walls of rock. Tomorrow I will drop right down to the Nile before crawling back up the other side of this huge canyon. Something to look forward to. 

****

My bill for seven nights’ accommodation, most dinners and breakfasts, and a good deal of beer in the Dutch guest house in Addis was a mere £120. Ethiopia is a cheap place to travel. Tonight I have a faded room in a guest house built around a stoney compound. There are six bungalow-style rooms, with a disfiguring rising damp problem from bad construction. Locks are falling off the doors for want of a screwdriver, the shower head is largely blocked, tiles loose, and the lavatory seat detached. But instead off a little regular maintenance the owner appears to be constructing four more rooms across the yard! It’s such a strange mind-set, and so African, something so many share on his continent. However, the bed is very comfortable and the room, although tired, is just about clean if I don’t look too closely. My bike stands outside the door and there’s always a watchman in these places. No one speaks English, but they seem amused to have a foreign guest. The room charge, with a bathroom with lukewarm water (morning, I think!) is under £9. I’ve eaten (to live I have to say, rather than for enjoyment) at a scruffy local hotel: injera dishcloth with highly peppered minced beef and cheese curds. Well, that’s as near identification as I could come! But it’ll do to keep me riding and who cares that I pulled my belt in a hole yesterday?

****

The Estonian biker brothers are leaving Addis tomorrow, back home to London and Estonia, leaving their machines here for another time. Kindly, Kristo gave me their hand pump and a 12 litre plastic container, now strapped to the side of my little bike with petrol. I managed to fill my tank at a station 25 kilometres back up the road, and bought five litres for spare. This ridiculous petrol crisis has no pattern. Here and there, there’s fuel, at its usual cheap price of 58 pence a litre; other places it’s almost £3 a litre on the black market, and other places it’s just not available. It’s a case, as usual in Africa, but even more so now, of fill up when I see fuel.

Now I think it’s under the covers – at 8.30. I bet sleep won’t be far away. 

DAY 33. SUNDAY JANUARY 13th 2019. FINOTE SELAM, ETHIOPIA

My nightly fear is to be staying too close to a discotheque or mosque, especially on Fridays or Saturdays. I didn’t know about Ethiopian churches! All night I could hear a long untuneful drone, but not Moslem for once. An endless incantation, flat-toned and tedious. Fortunately it was just far enough away for me to sleep through most of it, only resorting to the ear plugs when someone else started up somewhere as well before dawn.

Ethiopian churches in smaller towns and villages are generally six or eight sided buildings of zinc with a small square cupola, its tin roofed fringes decorated with small flashing pieces of dangling metal. Churches are painted in red, yellow and green, the national colours – those adopted by many young African states at independence, out of respect for Ethiopia’s long history of independence, and those, of course, taken by the Rastafarians – those sort of born-again Africans from the West Indies, reasonably indulgently tolerated here in their adopted homeland – the town of Shashamene, that I rode through south of Addis is their stronghold in Africa. The most common pictures adorning taxi minibuses and lorries are Jesus and Bob Marley, in about equal numbers, with Che Guevara somewhere behind! Sunday brings out the population; Orthodox Christian adherents wear white cotton; the women in long dresses with fine machine embroidery stripes down the middle, men with white scarves and sometimes tall wrapped turbans. This is a very religious country, about 35% Orthodox Christian, 33% Moslem and the rest a mixture, including some remaining Jews, although most of the quite large population left for Israel in the 1980s’ famines (out of the frying pan, I would be tempted to say…). Just about every Ethiopian identifies themselves by religion. It underpins life and culture.

****

Today’s been a good day, but quite hard again. That’s just a result of the immense size of this mountainous and desert formed country. It’s a harsh environment but impressive. I didn’t really mean to, but I rode another 150 miles. And I did the last twenty because at least three people told me there was a good hotel in Finote Salem. There is too! Quite a palace in which I have a corner room at the back, away from the road, with a balcony and a window looking across the seedy townscape. It’s very clean, and apart from a few partially blocked drains in the shower and basin, all the drawer knobs missing, and a few electrical dangers, it’s about the best Ethiopian resting place so far – for £11.75. The Mosquito is in the yard behind and I am looked after by a couple of young men who even speak some simple, understandable English. It feels quite the international hotel! I’m writing in a large tiled bar and restaurant in a comfy chair, with a Meta beer, and reliving my day: the great advantage off this journal discipline. I’m surrounded by Sunday night treats for middle class families. Many smile hospitably, but we share so little language that it’s difficult to engage. It’s a difficult country for solo travels.

****

Sometime there are views that take my breath away and sights that make me proud of this odd wandering way of life. To experience the Blue Nile Gorge, and add it to my rather long list of impressive sights, is satisfying – even if it’s a bit pointless, in that I have witnessed it for no real reason but the old saw: that it is there. 

Some of my travel experiences make all the loneliness, the discomfort, the boredom and the seedy rooms worthwhile. That’s why I do it. Just to have seen with my own eyes, to have stood on the rim of Fish Fish River Canyon in Namibia (2nd largest in the world, and me the only visitor that day), the Grand Canyon (largest, of course – but I was one of thousands, well organised and controlled), Blyde River Canyon in South Africa (3rd, I think, in scale) and now to have stood and wondered at the vast Blue Nile Gorge, an incredible, incomprehensibly huge break in the earth, formed by unimaginable millennia of erosion, is reward in itself for all the crises of confidence, sunburn, hassle and effort. Reward in spades. 

To stand on the edge off that immense trough, the Nile a far distant brown gash below, the folded and creased landscape reaching as far as I could see; raw, arrogant nature, just showing us how puny and inconsequential we really are. The Blue Nile, that joins the White Nile that I have seen in all its power crashing through the Murchison Falls, and over the rapids at Jinja, in Uganda, carries 90% of the water and 96% of the silt that flows down the Nile through Egypt to the Mediterranean. It falls from Lake Tana, where I should be tomorrow. 

The gorge has the scale, but not perhaps the colour, of the Grand Canyon. It’s just vast – and deep. The road, impressive in its planning but awful in its execution, with the tar rolled and rippled by insufficient substrate for the topography, winds down several thousand feet from the cool heights into the heat of its depths. I stopped frequently, just to enjoy the extraordinary vistas, the warmth and the fact of being there. Another almost unknown wonder of this most amazing continent.

****

What rides down, must ride up – on 200ccs of ‘power’. But it’s not a race, fortunately, as I’d be losing comprehensively. It’s been quite a slow ride, weaving around all the holes and hazards of Ethiopian roads; the awful driving, the donkeys and pedestrians, and in towns, the three-wheeler tuk-tuks – all utterly undisciplined, often on their phones or texting within the billowing curtains. Then I was back to riding across the high plains, rolling along in a huge landscape of yellow grass stubble and haystacks, small villages of stick and thatch and always walking people, by the tens of thousands. A few here wave, but to most I am a mystery, incomprehensible, from another world. It’s not that wonderful effervescent friendliness I found in the south, as I rode towards Addis Ababa. 

From the top of the gorge, the road was smooth, interspersed, for the unwary, by gigantic potholes and dips and wrinkles. It takes concentration. My shadow spread longer across the road. I had stopped for chai in the largest town and searched for petrol. I’d been ripped off for two litres of black market fuel in a small town but in the larger one I was helped by a friendly young man, who jumped on the back of my bike and guided me to a black market stall, well set up at the side of an apartment building. It’s crazy, this alternative market. The government is losing tax, and those rich enough to ‘invest’ in back-handed fuel from the suppliers are making good money. I keep five litres in my jerrycan and fill whenever I can. The legal price is 20 Birr, the black market anything between 30 and 50. Still, I keep finding fuel…

****

I’ve just eaten ‘lamb tibs’ – I really don’t know what it was, other than small pieces of lamb in sauce. Pleasant enough, it’s filled the hole encouraged by a day subsisting on a bread roll, half a packet of date roll biscuits and chai and buna. Eaten with chill, floppy dishcloth, it’ll keep me going – but I’m already dreaming of my home vegetarian diet. I’ve not had a decent green vegetable since Kenya, and that was all kale. The buna and chai is a chance to stop and meet people by the wayside; always memorable, for it’s the only time people really engage with me, almost as if a shyness comes over them until I have been with them for some short time. The language barrier is very big. I am spoiled by all the Anglophone countries of Africa. 

DAY 34. MONDAY JANUARY 14th 2019. BAHAR DAR, ETHIOPIA

Since crossing the Nile, I have settled back into my journey. My infamous determination and obstinacy are working once more, the smile’s on my face and I am interested in everything around me. Thank goodness I worked my way through my ‘wobbly’ of last week and I am relaxed once more. Ethiopia is still dauntingly huge, but I have accepted that I have time to slow down and enjoy what happens – even at 35 miles an hour.

Bahar Dar is a large town, a seething place of 600,000 or so, but a different kettle of fish to Addis – thank goodness. It sprawls beside Lake Tana, the source of the Nile here in Ethiopia. Sitting here on the hotel balcony above the busy street, the main road to the north, as it happens – the lake is way out of sight – I am watching dense traffic and a thousand ‘cockroaches’, as Rico calls the tuk-tuks so accurately, weaving in and out in search of fares; a large car just tried to turn left at the roundabout (Ethiopia drives on the right…); a student demonstration blocked the road noisily for ten minutes, something about an ethnic conflict (I think) between Oromo students from the south and Amhara students from this district; buses hoot; lorries blare their air horns; all is noise and anarchy. Across the road a tall building is bedecked in a multitude of hideous adverts for the occupants’ businesses, from computers to beauty parlours and insurance agents. The sun is setting pinkly along the road through a curling haze of city fumes, where some shadowy mountains rise against the horizon, the mountains from which I descended into this cheerful chaos. The streets seethe with people, half blocked by itinerant traders and over-flowing shops, it’s difficult to walk with any speed or direction. All life, in all Africa, is on the street. 

****

Chatting after breakfast (included in my rather good deal last night) with the hotel manager, its owner and his brother – a white foreigner is accorded a lot of respect, even dressed in oily motorbike trousers and a dust-filled jersey – I asked about mechanics in Finote Selam. “No, you will find no good mechanics here! I have Suzuki like yours (the first one I’ve seen here, a bit smaller but still a Suzuki). Go to Bahar Dar, and see Changyello! No mechanics in Finote Selam. Best in Bahar!” Thus encouraged, I set forth into the morning sun, bright and hot, and into the giant landscapes of this vast country. It’s a largely agrarian economy and much of the time I am riding past huge acreages of dry grass, now cut and piled in conical stooks and haystacks. The road seldom leaves ribbon villages, of vertical stick and mud houses. Here and there farmers tend oxen plodding in small circles threshing the crop, round and round in endless loops all day long. Bulbous hay wagons meander the roads, the mules subsumed by the enormous loads, the carts of old car axles and rough timber. Men and boys sit on top, whipping the mules or donkeys, turbaned or shawled in local cotton. Women, bent double under loads, carry bales of hay as big as the donkeys’. Men generally walk the roadside unencumbered. It’s the women who keep Africa going. 

The riding’s been a bit more relaxed today. The mad, speeding buses are less common up here; the minibuses just as crazy. But I am finding my way now amongst the traffic that frightened me so much before. I see that there’s a sort of etiquette of the road and that generally drivers’ observation is better than I imagined. It’s just everyone trying to cover huge distances against the provocation off those damned donkey and mule carts in the countryside and the tuk-tuks in town. 

People are friendlier here. I guess I have passed into another tribal area, as I get away from the unsympathetic people of the Addis Ababa district and it’s surrounds. The scenery has been becoming more attractive too since the Nile crossing: distant vistas viewed across tracts of high dry grasslands, waving eucalyptus forests and endless grazing lands. I drift through the sweet aroma of charcoal burning everywhere up here, the scented air drifting lazily in the hot sun. The air dazzles with brightness: I am very high most of the time. Between gouts of diesel fumes, the air is crystal and almost tangibly dense and heavy. The light is blue, the sun burning, shadows sharp.

****

A couple of lengthy villages filled with some festival, hundreds walking to the celebration, dressed or draped in white; older men, highly wound white turbans with flat tops, trotted on thin horses brightly caparisoned in red woollen pom-poms and plumes. On one hillside many had gathered around a red, yellow and green church building. Along the roads are small shrines; square, mud built with painted zinc roofs, a tiny cupola festooned with fringes of dangling tin, elaborate Ethiopian crosses on their tops. Often there’s a traditionally painted hanging beneath the roof, painted in that graphic, orthodox style that is so Ethiopian: flat featured portraits of Jesus or saints, lined in black and brightly painted in red, blue and yellows. Frequently, a parishioner – I assume – waits, brightly clad in embroidered robes with an upturned glittery umbrella to collect alms from passing vehicles and worshippers.

In a long straggly town – they are all long and straggly actually – I stopped for buna. This is becoming the most memorable part of my day. I pulled up, watched by a group of idle young men (of whom there are always plenty). Removing my helmet, earplugs, gloves and goggles, they watched, intrigued. Then one, the noisiest as always, ventured a couple of words in English, about all many people in the country know, “Coffee, like?” And pulled a plastic chair amongst theirs at the plastic table, beneath the plastic umbrella advertising a local beer. The whole place was the usual riot of yellow, orange, red and blue – not easy on the eye, but not supposed to be by the advertisers. 

It’s fun, these episodes amongst the goodwill of complete strangers, my coffee there bought by one of their number. We can’t really understand, but we can bond on a simple human level – the level of smiles and laughter, a few visual jokes and a lot of physical handshaking, gesticulating and loud conversation. Forty minutes or so passes in a warm atmosphere, trying as well as we can to communicate with a smattering of language. It’s surprising how much we can ‘talk’ thus! “You Christian?” is the main concern, with crosses pulled from inside shirts and jackets. “Anglican,” I lie, totally mystifying them, but leaving them content that I appear to believe – it’s far too difficult to put over my lack of belief in sign language and anyway, these people wouldn’t understand if I did. Later, the sign language, pidgin English questions, always turn to family and family size. I am obviously pitied for my mere two children (again, FAR too difficult to explain the concept of childlessness). “Me, three! You more!” encourages Yewilsew, the most confident, noisiest. He’s 25, he says, already father of three and wanting more. How would they ever understand the concept of over-population of the world; of the reasons for their poverty and unemployment; resources stretched to breaking; their effect on global warming – when all Africa wants is more children? There is NO hope for mankind on this planet. I give us about three hundred years more as a species unless there’s a cataclysm like the meteor hit that destroyed the dinosaurs. A few humans might be fortunate enough to survive and start again – it’s the only hope. If you’ve seen Africa, you know the futility of the way we pontificate about emissions targets, Paris Agreements and the like. We are doomed as a species. Don’t fool yourself. I’ve witnessed Africa these past three decades; three decades in which the countries I know have doubled their populations, and decades in which childhood mortality has been largely removed, meaning most off those doubled populations will live to breed again. The future is grim. Completely doomed..! 

****

The owner and manager of the Domat Hotel in Finote Selam recommended the Papyrus Hotel here in Bahar Dar, and I rode right to its doors in my first trawl of this city. How my travels have changed! A pleasant modern single room with bathroom and balcony is under £15, so why not? The bar is gloomy and the food passable (fish goulash and dishcloth) but the restaurant gets nil points for atmosphere; I’ll eat local tomorrow. But the staff speak English and even knew the mechanic recommended by my new friends in Finote Selam, a fellow by the name of Chanyello. One of the hotel hangers-on clambered on my pillion and directed me to a filthy workshop across town. Everyone says Chanyello is the best in town. The Mosquito is left there tonight, for an oil change, a complete check over and adjustments as required. 

Meanwhile, Beacourt, my guide, who also touts trips on the lake to visit the ancient Ethiopian monasteries, has inveigled me into a boat trip in the morning. It’s easier to agree with him than hassle on the streets for a boat ride. This is a touristic centre of Ethiopia and, frankly, Ethiopia is so cheap that even if I get ripped off, it won’t hurt much! So I’ll do my statutory tourist trip with him.

So I am back in travel mode and even planning the next phase to the north and the mighty Simien Mountains. I’m liking the Ethiopians more now I am away from Addis, although communication is very difficult, and I’m accepting the fact that even the boring bits will have to be taken at 35mph. 

DAY 35. TUESDAY JANUARY 15th 2019. BAHAR DAR, ETHIOPIA

This has been a wonderful day! How is it that ten days ago I had got to the point that I just wanted to be back in Kenya – and today I feel I have ARRIVED in Ethiopia. Well, I know the reasons – and as always the change has been people – people I meet, people who make me welcome, people who react and bond and are the wonder of the world, people who make travelling absolute magic. What a day! A great day. I’m not sure where to start. I’ve made friends, been an out and out tourist and had a memorable day with very good company. Just the chances of travelling.

At midnight-20, I am just in from one of the most memorable days. The sort of day that keeps me travelling even after all these years…

Through helpful Barcout, an honest man, I booked to go on a boat trip to visit the ancient monasteries on islands set in the placid Lake Tana. “There are two other people, you can join them. We meet here at 8.30,” he said yesterday, in the lobby of my hotel. This morning I suffered all the street noise rather than put in my ear plugs and sleep late, had my hotel breakfast and was in the lobby at 8.30, having changed to a room that has hot water and lights in the bathroom, unlike last night’s. I’d bet no one will mend the shower or fix the lights… I was easier to move me along the corridor.

Barcout and I jumped into a tuk-tuk to another, slightly smarter hotel, where we were joined by Daniel and his mother, Aster, Ethiopians both, although Daniel now lives in Zurich, where he works in IT software. He has two brothers in Switzerland too, married to French and Swiss women, and a brother in Ohio. His late father was a teacher and they are obviously from a middle class Addis Ababa family. His mother, who loves to travel, still stays in Addis at the family home. Daniel is home for a holiday to visit his mother, bringing his Ethiopian wife and 18 month old son for Christmas and for his in-laws to meet their grandchild. For a few days he and his mother are visiting a part of the country they don’t know. Daniel studied for some years in Dublin and speaks excellent English. His mother is a cheerful, determined woman but speaks little English. We were to be companions for the lake trip, which extended to lunch on the lake shore, a road trip to view the Blue Nile Falls, 35km from town, and even dinner by the lake and a terrific late evening of traditional music and dance – and in Ethiopia such things are not put on for tourists, but an integral part of this very strong culture. I am IN Ethiopia at last! I feel part of the place. I’ve a smile as wide as the Blue Nile Gorge on my face as I prepare for bed (hot shower tonight too!) and all the enthusiasm that makes my journeys so much part of my life. 

****

Floating gently across the lake in a well-appointed steel boat with canopy and outboard was lovely. The sun was bright, the air fresh and the lake calm, with its dotted tree-covered islands. We watched basking hippos at the entrance to the river that flows out of the lake, through Sudan, where it joins the White Nile and flows into Egypt. A feature of the day was the selection of lovely birds, from pelicans and fish eagles to brilliant kingfishers and tiny ground-hopping birds of many colours.

We called at the islands with their old monasteries, all Orthodox Christian of course. Aster had brought a complete change of clothes out of respect for tradition, wearing her Ethiopian cotton white embroidered dress and shawls for the monasteries and changing back into trousers and jacket at lunchtime. As for all Ethiopians, her religion is a serious consideration. It was so good for me to have Ethiopian companions for this tour; it added so much to my understanding, as well as entertaining me all day with good conversation and insights to Ethiopian life. 

Debre Maryam, Entons Eysus and Kibran St Gabrael were the three island monasteries we visited, the latter being the oldest and most sacred, only accessible to men, and then only the outside. It is only opened in December, the rest of the year the great doors – about eight of them, made from vast pieces of timber five metres high, many of their planks a metre wide – stay closed. It’s an eight-sided building of mud-crete with an intricate timber roof that now holds aloft boring rusted corrugated zinc. It’s on the top of the small island, and as we visited, a bent, blind old monk was led round, shuffling in the wake of a younger man. The monks wear upright pillbox cotton caps and wrap yellow or orange shawls around their shoulders, over long cotton robes. 

These monasteries were established in the 13th century, but appear to have been rebuilt and adapted over the centuries, the first two being mainly constructed from concrete, without the patina of age of the last one. Shoes off, padding on threadbare mats, you can wonder at the paintings, distinctly Ethiopian, a fascinating blend of ancient imagery and modern story telling. They are bright and glossy, all featuring bible stories and saints but revealing their stories like comic books and graphic novels. The painting is brash and colourful, vibrant, in intricate panels across the walls, just like comics. A quiet monk or two hovers discreetly about, yellow shawls contrasting brightly with the tattered red drapes and the brilliant paintings in the shadowy monasteries. Many, like so many of the men portrayed on the walls, are thickly bearded and quietly friendly. It’s all very low key and these are places of veneration, the monks touching their Ethiopian Orthodox crosses to our brows and cheeks as we leave. Somehow, I’d dreaded a much more touristic experience. With Aster touching her forehead to the door jambs as she entered each monastery, and the calmness of the monks, it was a restful, gentle experience, the placid lake around us, birds hooting and whistling from the trees. A few boats glided on the water, most of the few visitors were Ethiopian and all was peaceful and warm. 

It was cool on the water, under our canopy, sliding over the quiet waters, an occasional fisherman on low canoes made from papyrus reeds, as they have been for millennia, just like those in Egyptian tomb paintings – or on Lake Titicaca on another far distant continent. A large group of young people, traditionally dressed in long robes, shawls and pillbox hats, with a tall, handsome black-robed priest in attendance, clambered excitedly back into one of the canopied boats at a stone jetty at St Gabrael, and drifted away onto the still, sunny lake, a flutter of shawls and fabric, the priest standing at the back of their boat, chuckling, his cross in hand. 

At the second island, Daniel told me that Aster was hallo-ing and calling through the gates of the monk’s and nun’s compound as she wanted to take food on these sacred islands. We were made very welcome and sat in a large, empty hall, where amused, pretty young nuns brought us thick dark injera and spicy beans. Then, in horrid old plastic beakers, they poured local barley beer, sour and soupy, as it is in its various forms all over the continent. Of course, everyone thinks it wonderful that the white man takes part – not knowing how much experience I have of pito, bulsa and all its variants. 

Three or four hours went calmly by. Our kind, quiet boatman – and this didn’t feel like a tourist trip; all the finances had been arranged amicably in advance with Barcout and no further money demanded, beyond entry fees to the islands, their modern income – dropped us back into the garden of a smart lakeside hotel, where Aster, with quite an appetite and a figure to prove it, enjoyed lunch while Daniel and I took a draft beer. Then Barcout, ever polite, met us with his driver and I decided I was enjoying my day so very much that I would accompany Daniel and Aster on the second half of their arranged tour – to the Blue Nile Falls, 35km from Bahar Dar. It was a rough road I would have taken on my Mosquito, but why not enjoy the companionship? “Oh, we would probably be arguing by now! You know how it is with mothers!” exclaimed Daniel with a laugh. “Come on, we are enjoying your company too!”

We bounced noisily over the rocky road – I had not realised just how uncomfortable it is on four wheels – through endless villages of vertical stick houses with ugly zinc roofs. “They used to be much more beautiful with grass roofs,” said Daniel. Sugar cane was being loaded here and there and everywhere there were people, people, people, and donkeys by the thousand. It’s a completely rural landscape, small fields, eucalyptus trees and dust. But here the landscape is becoming green again. We are still at 1800 metres and the sun still beats down relentlessly. 

The falls ARE a bit of a rip-off. The tourist office still uses pictures of the 400 metre wide falls, spume flying in ethereal clouds into the sky above the 45 metre high horseshoe. Those pictures were taken before the river was dammed for electricity immediately upstream! Today the falls are about six metres wide and I have seen better in England. The setting is pleasantly rural, with a gentle walk through fields and a short belt in an old boat across the Nile to land at a muddy embankment. Children who should be at school – their compatriots were returning in clapped out old boats to their homes as we crossed the not very wide river in the ‘Heaven Sun Light’ boat reserved for tourist visitors – children pestered us (quite politely but relentlessly) to buy souvenirs and I took a couple of mandatory photos of the unimpressive falls. “Not exactly Victoria!” Daniel quipped. “Or Murchison or the rapids near Jinja,” I agreed. This is the Nile at its least exciting. However, I was enjoying the long day in good company, and now we motored back, bouncing on the rocks and dust, an hour to town as a brilliantly clear orange sun dipped slowly below the low mountains on the horizon. 

“So what’s our evening programme?” asked Daniel at the door of their hotel. “My mum wants a sauna, and then we will have beer and some dinner?” We agreed to meet in a couple of hours.

****

My evening was terrific! We ate fish goulash again (a bit like sweet and sour fish without the sweet or the sour, just the hot) and drank a couple of beers. It was late now to eat, after nine. I argued with Daniel about paying for the food. “You can pay, next place…” For we were going on to a traditional club in town, the sort of place I’d never have found for myself. We squeezed into a tuk-tuk back to the centre and pushed open the doors of a rather seedy looking bar, closed to the street. It felt like a private place but was a roaring bar filled with people and music. About 100 people, mainly men, but a few young women around too, sat on low cube stools of wood and hide. The walls were decorated here and there with traditional weavings and beer posters. There were no tables, just the low stools. The place was full, and full of noise. People shuffled up to make room on four stools inside the door. A man was declaiming very loudly, obviously a story told in rhythm with two drums beating in the back of the room. It must have been funny, to judge by the audience. It was perhaps a far relation to rap; the storyteller beating his stick on the floor, amongst the spread grasses so typical of gathering places and buna stalls. We ordered beers, St George: a popular brand, and Aster had a huge gin. 

The loud storytelling gave way seamlessly to a fellow, dressed in sort of jodhpurs and belted jacket, playing a one-stringed instrument and again making up his song as he went along; so much was obvious when he came to me and included me in what must have been funny stories, to judge by the indulgent laughter all around. The drums beat at the back of the room and everything was somehow in synch. Then dancing began, several youths and a couple of women with enormous flowing hair and long, belted traditional dresses of white cotton and embroidery, doing the most bizarre traditional dance. It’s odd, in that it uses mainly the upper body and shoulders. Some of the dancers seemed double-jointed as they shook and gyrated their shoulders in fast rhythm to the drums and a small mouth horn and the rhythmic clapping of the crowd. Of course, no one can resist getting the white man involved: it’s a big joke. And no white man worth anything in this situation can resist making a gesture at least, however ridiculous he may look. It’s just appreciated that I join in: it shows respect and equality of some sort. Everyone laughs and a few cheers go up at my pathetic display. I’ll have got rid of all my shoulder tension with this crazy dance! I can feel the loose joints as I write next morning about my wonderful, warmly friendly evening. A few more beers and my shoulders were jigging and bouncing automatically to the drums, the one-stringed instrument, the noisy singing, the shouts and cries and the pulsing rhythm that is so much part of all African music. I was happy and content to be in Ethiopia, my angst and reservations forgotten, my confidence back, the journey rekindled.

“Aren’t you frightened, these places you go?” ask so many at home about my travels… I felt so welcome, so full of goodwill myself, so accepted and so respected.

****

It was midnight before we drew ourselves away and I got a tuk-tuk to my hotel with a friend of Daniel and Aster’s, who been with us. I staggered back up the stairs, exhausted but elated by my day, that had started at 8.30 in the morning and was now drawing to a close 16 full hours later. Now all I wanted was a hot shower and sleep – but why do I expect hot water from the hot tap? I am in Africa. The hot water, if there is any, invariably comes from the cold tap! Things are contrary and eccentric here. And you step in cold puddles when you go for a pee in the night, for the floor drain is higher than most of the floor and East African bathrooms always have the shower in front of the lavatory…

****

Daniel added so much to my day, with his plentiful, intelligent conversation, his explanations and his knowledge of the norms and conventions. It was relaxing to let him and Aster deal with those as I enjoyed my day in relaxation. We talked about the eternal problem of overpopulation that is creating so much hunger, unemployment, global warming and forthcoming disaster in this country – on this continent. “I blame the Orthodox Church. They should be taking the lead in this, but they don’t. You know, historically many of this country’s problems come from the dominance of Egypt over Ethiopia until 60 years ago. The leader of the Orthodox church, the pope, if you like, was always appointed from Egypt. He appointed the bishops, so the control was from Egypt. You’ll have seen, we are a very religious country. They were happy to keep Ethiopia poor and under control because the Nile flows from this country but is the source of their wealth. Now we are building the new dam on the Nile; they don’t like it as they are losing control. Ethiopia is building that dam without outside help, not the IMF, not other countries. It’s a homegrown initiative with the whole country involved.”

I asked about the hope that I have seen with the new regime now in power. Daniel was not so sanguine. He told me of deep ethnic unrest, mainly between the two biggest population groups, the Oromo and Amharic. “I think it’s possible that we could have a situation as bad as Rwanda at some time, unless this can be kept under control. It goes very deep…” Tribal Africa, as strong today; as competitive; as angry and jealous as ever. And it wasn’t even the Scramble for Africa that caused this tension, as Ethiopia has never been colonised, despite many tribal borders being ignored in the white man’s drawing of lines on that Victorian map as they raped the continent. Ethiopia is proudly independent and always has been. 

What a day! Full, fascinating and very funny too. New friends, even just for a day: the best thing in life. Maybe one day I will meet Daniel in Zurich and thank him again for adding so much to my understanding and enjoyment of his mother country. I hope so. 

DAY 36. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 16th 2019. BAHAR DAR, ETHIOPIA

The Mosquito has been fully serviced, even to the fitting of a new oil seal on the kick start, a job I didn’t expect to get done. It appears that Changyello found a Yamaha seal that fits. Everything now works and everything’s been adjusted, lubricated, reconnected and checked. I have a horn, a dipped beam, no exhaust leak, new oil. I hope for another couple of thousand kilometres without trouble. It’s worth it for me, to have confidence that a more knowledgeable mind (and mechanically speaking, there are a lot of those around) has looked in detail at the workings of my transport. The cost was £58, quite a lot of money in Ethiopia, but I am a white man, so I pay a premium – and for me it’s still cheap. The price of mental security. 

Then I needed petrol. Oh, what a ridiculous saga this is in Ethiopia. There was no black market available, so ever-helpful Barcout, on the back of my bike, took me to a large petrol station on the edge of town. The line of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and cars stretched at least a kilometre. Imagine the loss of efficiency, the loss of work, the cost of transport this involves. “OK, go here,” instructed Barcout, pushing me to the front of the queue, right onto the forecourt. Youths brandishing large sticks bullied everyone and tried to extort money from me, but I’m an Englishman, dammit, and I’m not going to be intimidated by a bribing youth for no service! I responded indignantly and loudly, attracting attention. They slunk away, bad tempered. I stood my ground and in twenty minutes my tank was filled; that’s hours before those in the queue, if the supply didn’t run out. Don’t ask me why I am afforded this privilege, probably because no one wants to argue with a  ‘ferengi’ in case I happen to be influential. Frankly, my guilt is very quickly assuaged. “There’ll be petrol in Gondar,” says Barcout, “it comes over the border from Sudan.” It’s making my journey difficult and I have to be conscious all the time that supplies are short and difficult to find. I have about 2000 kilometres to get back to Kenya and can’t waste a drop. 

Hence today, instead of a ride to visit other monasteries, little visited along the shores of the lake, I parked the Mosquito – it was already noon by the time I’d been to the mechanic and filled the tank – and walked the streets of the city centre instead. My hotel room is one of the best, so I may as well relax. Right now, I am writing from a basket chair on the bar terrace on the seventh floor of one of the better hotels with a fine view north over the lake. In this country, a beer, even here, will cost me about a pound a bottle and my skin gets me past any suspicious doorman down below, even in my creased clothes and with the odd bald patch I created by mistake when trimming my hair rather badly this morning! No one will even notice and my vanity is long gone here on my travels.

****

How can any town need so many mobile phone shops? It’s an African conundrum. It’s true that everyone, from the shoe shines and rural peasants to the businessmen and professionals, has a phone, but whole streets of these towns and cities are lined with phone shops. It’s slow, walking the crowded streets, much of the pavement obstructed by traders and shoe shines and people attempting to scratch a living by selling a few sticks of gum, some Chinese junk products, sandals, sunglasses and cheap watches, tee shirts and hats. What’s life like, I can’t help pondering as I walk, committed to this endless poverty and tedious necessity to earn a few Birr any way you can? What ambitions and dreams can you have when life is reduced to scraping together enough small coins to purchase the meanest of foodstuffs – probably to feed several children? What do you think about, squatting day in, day out, at the side of the hot pavement in an endless line of competing traders? Perhaps those children are the only creative product of your existence? Perhaps that’s why there are so many? It’s the one thing every human can achieve, yet it impoverishes both you and the children, always just a bit more. Everyone’s in the same boat; maybe that makes this life more acceptable? Tomorrow will be just the same: this endless grind of poverty, lack of education, poor nutrition, discomfort, and then home to some shack on the peripheries of town. 

It’s how most of the world lives.

And I ask these questions sitting in a smart bar carpeted with Astroturf on the roof of a smart hotel, wondering what and where I will eat from the plethora of (chilli-peppered) choices at my command. I am so privileged but even I take it for granted, as my right. Tomorrow I will ride my little bike to new experiences, untroubled by lack of finances, just a bit niggled by the irritations of petrol supplies – that I can afford even at black market prices. It’s such an unequal world. We would do well, in our wealth and privilege, to remember that. 

****

Bahar Dar is a city full of trees, even in the main trading avenues. The proximity of the lake, about 75 by 60 kilometres in size, although only about fifteen metres deep, assures this pleasant climate. Now, as the sun sinks for the day, the air is quickly cooling; there’s a breeze off the lake up here on the seventh floor and last night I had to double over the bed cover for warmth.  So much of this country is at altitude: here the lake is 6004 feet above sea level. For the last month, I have been at these altitudes, sometimes way higher – and colder. 

Gazing at the street activity, drinking thick black buna in the enveloping warmth of the afternoon, my feet scuffing in the fresh grasses spread around these traditional refreshment coffee stalls – a charming habit – I realised that that first coffee, in Agere Maryam, is still the best I tasted, despite the simplicity of the hotel. “That’s the region where the BEST Ethiopian coffee comes from!” Daniel explained yesterday. “You could take some back with you, when you ride back to Kenya!” Another kilo on my little Mosquito..? Four hundred miles of bush and desert to cross? 

****

It’s dark now. The lake has disappeared, lights come on – although many vehicles still drive the streets below without lights. Fifty times a day people signal to me that my light is on. Yes, that’s why: so I am seen! In all Africa vehicle lights are left dark until the last moment and beyond. I’m sure drivers think they are wasting money and fuel when they run with their lights on. 

Time for supper…

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EAST AFRICA 2018-2019. THREE

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DAY 21. TUESDAY JANUARY 1st, 2019. MOYALE, KENYA

So it’s 2019. I was fast asleep a couple of hours before midnight, and woke to a miserably grey, windy morning. This is Marsabit’s microclimate. By ten thirty it was the usual hot house, and the desert below the mountain was burning.

It’s been quite a day! Wow! And again wow! What a day. It began badly when I topped up with oil in the hotel car park and drove away without returning the filler cap, because I was talking to Saleem, the manager. I rode north, stopping – fortunately – to take a photograph of the large crater that drops beside the road beyond the town, in fact the road follows its rim for a mile or so. As I walked back to the Mosquito I saw my boot was covered in oil. Expletives, loud and colourful, followed. I rode back to town, ten kilometres back, with my foot on the oil filler hole, oil atomising all over the bike. Back at the hotel, I knew just where I had ridden and Saleem and several others joined me in a forensic search of the rocky approach lane, car park and main dual carriageway outside. We searched and searched in vain. Saleem, so helpful, phoned the best mechanic in town. He would come in due course. Meanwhile, we all searched again. 

It was an hour before one of the young men found the filler cap! He found it on the other carriageway of the big road passing the hotel. Sadly, a truck must have run over it, but by then Sam, a charming Kikuyu mechanic from middle Kenya, and obviously a knowledgeable and decent man, had arrived. Now he left again to bring a small file with which to buff the threads back into shape. 

Because of all this it was high noon when I finally left, into the hottest part of the day and one of the hottest parts of East Africa. I have Sam’s phone number and will have him check the Mosquito when I pass back through Marsabit. What a kind, gentle man. He was at some time in the military but settled in this northern town with his brother, and fellow mechanic, to do God’s work, he being a devout evangelical Christian in this rather Islamic town. Despite my own total disbelief, I do respect the sort of guidance that Sam obviously takes from his religion. It forms the foundation of his life without preaching too much to the rest of us. That’s fine by me. He’d probably be a decent, honest and likeable man without it, but he obviously believes he’d be a lesser man. It’s an unquestioning complete belief.

****

It was another astonishingly alone (not lonely) ride. I fell to thinking, for there’s not much to do out there amongst the red sand and burned purple rocks, the low dry scrub, the camels, numerous graceful gazelles, the local mayattas, the decreasing thorn trees, the blinding sun, the horizon visibly bent to prove that the world is round, the long smooth tarmac, and a vehicle coming the other way about once every ten or fifteen minutes. 

And what did I think about in my reveries..? I thought that I am probably certifiably bonkers! Absolutely off my trolley! Obstinate and utterly crazy! What the hell, I wondered, was I doing there? I was riding across about three hundred and fifty miles of burning desert on a tinny 200cc motorbike; no shade, dressed in hot boots, jacket zipped against the danger of flying insects, wool scarf to protect the back of my neck from the vertically overhead sun, steaming helmet and goggles. I am four months off seventy years old. Why can’t I stay at home, pour another Laphroaig for New Year and act my age? Take up carpentry or painting or some sedentary hobby? What is it that drives me to this? 

Of course, it’s the Challenge. I’m afraid of these decisions I make: to cross this huge desert to explore even bigger Ethiopia. I have been apprehensive, deep down, for weeks. And the trouble is, as soon as I acknowledge my fear, I know I can’t, or won’t, let it beat me! Which is where my legendary obstinacy comes to the fore. I WILL overcome the disquiet. I WILL persevere. And there, of course, come the rewards, the new confidence, the high of achievement. It’s about beating the fears. 

Utterly, totally pointless! Bonkers. 

****

The sun beats remorselessly on my helmet. I listen to that loose timing chain, wait for the puncture, count the miles down. It’s incredibly empty and incredibly vast: just me on the little bike moving through this terrifyingly remote landscape. Here and there herdsmen sit beneath the thin shadow of a thorn tree, hundreds of sheep grazing the empty miles, scavenging for goodness knows what. There are perhaps five small, rude villages in all these 150 miles, mainly basic places of local manyattas, caravan-sized homes of curved sticks covered with astonishing patchworks of scavenged debris: old plastic, woven nylon sacks, pieces of torn canvas truck canopies, tablecloths, bedsheets, and dust-faded plastics, all tied down with home made ropes. What do these people DO? What do they eat – camel milk and sheep, I suppose. Much of their day must be taken up in the basic need of fetching water – there are numerous donkeys carrying yellow plastic containers across the desert. What are these people’s ambitions? Just to survive, maybe? What do they think about? How do they see me? They are a mystery to me, just as I would be to them, should we come into closer contact as I hurry past. Why is it that at almost 70 I want to ride my motorbike across their harsh homeland and all they want is to exist in this furnace? It’s all they know… But I’m not content with that…

****

Around four, weary and overheated, I approached Moyale, the last Kenyan town. It’s not an attractive place. It’s full of large mosques and that directed my search for accommodation. The obvious hotels were too close to that dismal drone of the muezzins at dawn. I rode down every dusty lane looking for signboards. I found a guest house in a quiet place but it seemed to be closed. I turned in the dust lane. And that was when the clutch cable broke! All I wanted was a cool shower and a drink – and now I must deal with this. 

I was proud of the bodge I fashioned from a six inch nail with my pliers. By levering it against the handlebar I could pull in the clutch enough to ride to find help. First, I checked into a nearby basic lodging house, a simple room on the second floor with a view of scrubby hills and people’s compounds below. It’s good enough for the night, a cleanish bed, a rugged bathroom with a cold shower, a railed passage in front of the room; there are no other guests so it’s like a balcony. Tonight the whole town is without electricity, which may help keep the lugubrious misery of the mosques quiet. The watchman brought me candles and matches and it’s quite atmospheric as I write. The sound of families below floats up, utensils clatter, and the watchman and his friends chatter below. My ears still sing from the desert ride and I am still thirsty but the water is most unattractive, with a vile sulphurous smell, doubtless a souvenir of the volcanic nature of these lands. Fortunately, it doesn’t taste quite as bad as the smell.

The local boda-boda mender sent me to town, by the biggest mosque. There I asked about, riding my bodge rather proudly. Soon I met Mahat, in his broken down lock-up, the frontage deep in oily sand and discarded bike parts. Most things can be mended in Africa; it’s how everyone exists. With parts from two Chinese clutch cable packages, he fashioned me a working clutch – actually better than before. By the time we were done, me greasy fingered and weary as hell, it was almost seven and darkness falling as we worked with the aid of our phone torches. Mahat asked for 300 bob for the clutch we cannibalised, another 100 bob for the new cable and 100 for himself, a total of £4. I gave him five and we parted the best of friends. In Addis, maybe I can find a replacement from Suzuki – or I might just carry that as spare until this one breaks!

As Mahat and I worked, a young Somali boy pestered around. “Take me to Engerland. I want to go to Engerland. Why don’t you take me to your embassy?” It’s the universal dream. This boy tried the ‘Libya route’ but turned back when he saw the danger and cost. My words of unemployment in England, the cold, the expense, the contempt in which he’ll be held by many. I was reading rampant xenophobia in my Guardian, from Dover residents only this morning. The saddest sign of changed times being that the liberal, understanding Dover folk all asked for their names to be withheld, while the racists were proud to publish their ignorance. My words have no effect. The streets of the North are still paved with gold. The old colonial fairy tales refuse to die. Reality is still perceived as me being mean-spirited. And of course, I AM the one with the ‘big’ piki-piki and the ease and money to tour Africa on a whim. It’s an unequal world.

****

Now it’s 9.15. I am exhausted with the heat, the tension, the bike repairs, dehydration and a grim meal of chicken and beans that I took quickly before returning to my guest house in the pitch dark, my headlight shining up at the roadside trees. I shall sleep on top of the bed tonight, ignoring the centimetre-thick Chinese blanket. 

And the best news of the day is that this morning I dropped my iPad on a tiled floor (I am usually SO careful!) and seem to have cured the immensely frustrating problem I have had since the ‘repair’ of the screen. Only this morning I emailed the Apple repair place in Nairobi and told them I would have to bring it back sometime and meanwhile would try to purchase an external keyboard in Ethiopia. So far tonight the only typos have been mine, not the independent mind of the device. I will watch with interest. The old adage: if it doesn’t respond to care, bash it! 

It’s 9.38 and the whole town is silent, asleep. But those miserable muezzins won’t let anyone sleep in. Earplugs by the bed… (Just as well. The power came back a few hours later, bringing back all the radios and TVs in compounds around, everyone asleep by now, and no African sleeps as lightly as me. They would blare until dawn…).

DAY 22. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 2nd 2019. AGERE MARYAM, ETHIOPIA

Ethiopia. A complete new book. And right now, I feel utterly lost – not unduly ill at ease, but with no bearings at all on which to start. Culture shock is a well worn phrase, but apt tonight. I don’t know how to begin. Of course, in a way, it’s a reflection on how complacent I have become in East and southern Africa, where English is so widely spoken and the culture has so many echoes of the British. It’s easy to travel in all those countries; this is something entirely different…

It’s been a very long hard day and my confusion adds to my exhaustion. And for once I do feel rather alone. Few people speak English (why should they?) and I appear to be a somewhat exotic species to most I pass. Everyone waves and gesticulates: it’s astonishingly friendly – just a complete unknown and I am floundering. Doubtless, I will begin to pick up the cultural signs in a day or two. I’ve enough experience after all. For now it’s new languages, a new script, different calendar, new norms, new currency, new everything; out of my depth for once – hopefully briefly.

I’m sitting in a sort of bar in the yard of a cheap hotel. The light bulbs are about 20 watt, all over the hotel. I’m a little out of sight, keeping that way as I seem to attract so much attention when I’m more visible. I’ve got my second 60p bottle of beer in front of me and just ate a bizarre meal of injera, the Ethiopian thin pancake made of slightly fermenting millet, and what I hoped would be vegetables… Well, remember, the only Ethiopian food I ever ate was in that rather smart Nairobi restaurant on the first night of this trip. Then I was served a big injera with various very tasty vegetables, beans, small piles of delicious meat and some good tastes like salsas. Tonight I ordered injera and vegetables – and got the 15 inch, thin pancake and a huge helping of spaghetti, with some small shavings of carrot and cabbage and chilli pepper! Oh well, after a day entirely sustained on fruit juice and water I guess it’ll keep the body going for another few hours. I can recommend travelling as the ultimate diet, largely because, on the road, you eat to live, and sometimes there’s just nothing available. Today was such a day. No breakfast in the basic hotel, nothing I wanted to eat in Moyale, and then no currency to buy food.

Now, half dead from fatigue, I am determined to record my reactions, here in the warm dark evening. Music pounds from the street; everyone shouts rather than talks; music plays tinnily from a handful of phones; there are people everywhere, far more than I see in Kenya. About ten candle-power illuminates the whole sprawling hotel, rooms ranged round the car park, and a largely empty four storey block in which I have one of the few occupied rooms on the third floor for some daylight and fresher air. The larger block has no running water but has light and a view – essential for me, but not for Africans, who exist in these dull, gloomy, internally-windowed lodging houses. Actually, my room with a sort of view over the incredibly scruffy town, is cheaper than the ones round the noisy, fume-filled car park on the ground floor. It costs £5.30. Eat your heart out, all those faceless £100 Hampton Inns of my American travels! At least this has character!! I know I’m here – in Ethiopia.

****

My sleep was fine in that simple Moyale guest house, but I wasn’t sorry to leave the misery-soaked Moslem women who ran it. They seemed to wallow in their gloom, headscarves pulled around unsmiling faces. I didn’t bother to ask about breakfast, the body language told me there wasn’t any. I bought a carton of juice, filled up with fuel and headed for the nearby border post, visible in the valley. I’d imagined a chaotic crossing, remembering ones like South Africa to Zimbabwe and the pushing mayhem at pokey windows. This is the main highway – the only viable highway – between Kenya and Ethiopia, yet I appeared to be about the only vehicle crossing. In an hour and twenty minutes I was in Ethiopia. It might have been an hour and five, had the only printer for the customs officer’s computer (“There are problems with the network. Please be patient…”) not been a 200 metre walk away down the station in another building.

No banks were open on the Ethiopian side (“There were problems last week…” I took from that that there were disturbances) and I brushed aside dozens of irritating money changers. I’d use my card at an ATM in the next large town. I thought… The next ‘large town’ was the ill-named Mega. A straggly dump so small I rode through looking for the town! There was an ATM in a crowded bank compound and it actually worked, even if I did my business amongst a crowd of intrigued spectators and had no idea how much money I had in my hand having withdrawn the largest amount available. About £115, it turned out later when, in this town, I called in to a bank to ask the rates, and was ushered behind all the cashiers and their tills by polite people eager to help, even though it took time to explain that what I wanted was the international exchange rate. (“There’s problems with the network, I am sorry, you must be patient…”).

****

My journey was long and hot, the desert giving way to bush land, not unlike northern Ghana. Houses were round and mud built with conical thatched roofs, walls brightly and proudly decorated with painted bands of colourful triangles and diamonds. Later, these gave way to houses of sticks and thatch. People waved and stared, astonished. I felt that I was a rarity, but I can’t believe that I am, except that I did see four smart Land Cruisers pass – Ethiopian drivers and white passengers flashing by, separate. Perhaps individual white men ARE a rarity; ones who wave and smile and react.

306 kilometres, on a bike that does 45mph downhill… It’s a very small machine for these immense distances in a country twice the size of France. Even now, 190 miles into Ethiopia, I am still 300 from Addis Ababa. That’s why I persevered. And I have to return by the same bloody route, too. Bonkers. What am I trying to prove? Just that I am an obstinate bastard? 

****

I am happy I did carry on so far this evening. After long slow climbs, the landscape changed back to something much more like the highlands of Kenya, with mighty cedars here and there, mixed into the more tropical growth. Finally, I thought, the extremely large desert was receding. I’m climbing higher, towards the altitude of Addis. 

Now, at 8.20, I am wiped out. The noise outside is incredible. Music pounds and hundreds of people shout and yell, lorry klaxons, motorbikes, people, people, people. Astonishingly, whenever I go anywhere near the hotel gate, people call to me, come and introduce themselves in very basic English, or wave, smile and gather in crowds around me. It’s very tiring – but very engaging too. 

Ear plugs! And I left it too late to wash in the bucket of – cold – water. It’s getting cool outside. I’ll sleep in my dirt tonight. No one will notice here. The smell of bodies is quite prevalent. And the threadbare bedsheets are grey with age already. 

My god, the NOISE!

DAY 23. THURSDAY JANUARY 3rd 2019. HAWASSA, ETHIOPIA

It’s funny how a day can change in a few moments. This was a HARD day, and by mid-afternoon I was sinking into depression and defeatism, wondering if this really was a viable proposition, riding this very small motorbike about such a vast country. I was getting bad tempered, only returning about one in ten of the extravagant waves from everywhere, feeling completely bushed and rather beaten. It was all too much. This Ethiopian trip was a mistake… 

On a whim, I decided to stop for a cup of tea in a hotel I was passing in this large town of Hawassa. The tea was very good, a bit sweet and red, like rooibos tea. It was also restorative, and the waiters quite charming, a group of young men with the widest smiles. Then a fellow approached and spoke English, a bit difficult to decipher, but basically the language I understand. He was the first person with whom I have spoken any sense in two days. Balguda was kindly and asked what information I needed. We chatted for a while and then I realised that I was absolutely knackered and probably incapable of even the 25 kilometres left to the town I had picked for my night. Balguda told me that the rather smart hotel where I was seated would charge me a large sum – almost £12 – but he had a friend with a guest house 300 metres up the main road where I could get a room for less than £6. He would guide me there in his car. There he introduced me to the owner, Defige, who, wonder of wonders, speaks good English and once spent three years in Dublin. My spirits lifted. The room is acceptable – a bit rough and tattered, but it will do. It also has hot water, which I really need tonight! For an hour we three sat on stools in the yard and talked, largely about Brexit – since no one here can understand the national suicide that Britain contemplates, or Theresa May and her shambles. 

But I’m in Ethiopia, who wants to think about the stupidity of British politicians?

****

Now, before I say anything disparaging about the struggles of my day, let me make one statement right out: alongside dear Lesotho, I don’t think any nation has made me more welcome in Africa than my early experience of Ethiopia. Sometimes I write, particularly in Lesotho, that I have waved to hundreds of people. Here I can multiply by ten, partly because there are SO many people, but also because almost all of them shout out, wave, gesticulate, stop in astonishment, ride faster to ride alongside to look, point me out, flash their lights, gather in crowds when I stop, and just react with pleasure and excitement. I feel larger than life, even when I am so emotionally and physically buggered that I can hardly think straight. It’s a wonderful gift to be the focus of so much genuine goodwill. 

And at the end of a bloody day, that’s actually my reaction, having just eaten a very good meal – beef goulash unlike any goulash I ever ate before but very tasty and garlicky, watched by a small boy, about three years old, playing at my table. His mother keeps calling him off, but I smile that I don’t mind. I’m charmed by it. I feel so much better.

****

The day wasn’t all this contented… A couple of beers has helped no end.

Agere Maryam was pretty ghastly. I dislike the words, ‘Third World’, but I can’t think of any other description that describes how rugged life seems to be in southern Ethiopia. I’ve ridden through a huge tract of country that was like going back a long way after the developed infrastructure and social development of Kenya and Uganda. This was rural Africa at its most basic. It was also – and I despise my own prejudice – a largely Moslem region. It’s easy to see why Islam gives such a negative image. And I have travelled in many Islamic countries, and enjoyed their hospitality, but there is something ultimately depressing about the repressiveness of the religion, its subjugation of women (in the region through which I have just travelled I noted that the pack animals were donkeys and women, about equal in loads, both driven by menfolk walking casually behind), its appalling miserable intonations of prayers, and all its own prejudices of we infidels. My minor rant here is the result of that moaning lament coming from three separate mosques sometime around 5.35 this morning even percolating my ear plugs. It was a bad start, after a poor sleep, trying to digest about a pound of spaghetti and anxiety about the task I have set myself and my ability to either achieve or enjoy it.

I had just got over the ghastliness of that dismal droning when the watchman started beating on my door. It was shortly after six. I ignored it for some moments, but at last had to pull on trousers and open the door. He stood outside expectantly. “You go?” he asked, with a gesture to the road.

“No, I don’t bloody go! It’s still DARK!” For, indeed, the sun was just coming over the shoulder of the hills. “Go away! I want to sleep!” It wasn’t a happy start to my day. Later, sitting on my bed, packing my panniers, one of the attendants looked through the window and indicated that he wanted my (very grey) bedding for washing. OK, so there wasn’t much finesse about the place.

But the coffee… The coffee.

Coffee originated from this southern region of Ethiopia; originally eaten, but later – around the 13th century – becoming the beverage we know all over the world. Here I was at the fount of all coffee. In Ethiopia it is a ritual drink as much as a common beverage; the coffee ceremony is intricate and formal. Every hotel, cafe, office building and so forth has its little altar to coffee – in the form of a small booth containing a low table covered in small coffee bowls, a brazier and incense burner, all attended by a woman versed in all the intricacies of making and serving the national drink. Even my rugged hotel had its ‘buna’ stall. Rico has told me fondly about Ethiopian coffee, and I took it all as slight exaggeration, knowing how strong and bitter Rico likes his coffee. I gestured to the young coffee girl that I’d like a cup. She acknowledged my look and put her elegant black clay pot with its long curved spout onto the brazier. She brought me a small dish, sugar and the pot. I stopped the second heaped spoon of sugar (into a small coffee cup) and she poured the thick black liquid from her pot. I waited for it to cool and then tasted it suspiciously. It was absolutely DELICIOUS! I have NEVER tasted such coffee! Rico, I take back my doubts. This coffee was unlike I ever tasted: it was rich, chocolatey, tasted subtly of charcoal smoke, and perhaps it was my imagination, but it even seemed to have infused a trifle of the incense. Three tiny cups is the ritual, and I had no hesitation in enjoying the other two! No coffee will ever be the same.

****

Breakfast wasn’t quite so successful – some sort of spicy meat mixed with egg and sort of scrambled, dumped unceremoniously onto a large injera on a tin tray. Paul Theroux, whom I have been reading, likens injera to the consistency of bath mat, but I think it’d be more accurate to say one of those ‘Spontex’, I think they were called, kitchen cloths. It’s kind of grey and bubbly and saggy.  Oh well, it filled the stomach ready for the worst road I have ridden in some years. Broken tarmac, badly broken tarmac, and road building makes for the worst ride. I had to endure about sixty miles of this punishment. It was horrible, and the traffic, although thin, is undisciplined. Passing through straggly, unkempt towns and villages there are hundreds of Indian three-wheeler ‘tuk-tuks’ (cockroaches, as Rico calls them), small taxi motorbikes and the worst pedestrians I have ever experienced – anywhere. It became quite cold as I was now at altitude, rolling over mountains – and my mood drooped. This wasn’t why I’d come to Ethiopia: I’d come to witness the pride and wonder of one of the only countries in Africa never to be colonised, with a more immense, intense depth of history and culture than much of the rest of the world. I hadn’t come for decrepitude, mess, ugliness, heavy traffic and bad roads, even if tens of thousands of people flashed enormous smiles, waved wildly, and their calls and greetings permeated my ear plugs over the bashing and crashing of my little bike.

Then I discovered that Ethiopia has a fuel war going on. Basically, there isn’t any… Almost every petrol station is dry, with queues of motorbikes and cockroaches 150 or 200 long. There seems to be diesel for the buses. In Agere Maryam I bought four litres of black market fuel from plastic bottles at an exorbitant rate. It was enough to get me to Dila, where I was told there was petrol. At this point I didn’t know it was a national problem. In Dila the queues stretched far down the road at the only station with a supply. What was I to do? If I queued, I’d be here for two or three hours. I took out my map. A crowd gathered around me. I play-acted my need for petrol. 

Several young men encouraged me just to go straight to the pump. What to do? Did I maintain my equality, or abuse my privilege as a visitor? One look at the queue reaching back 300 yards up the dusty road made the decision immorally simple! I rode to the pumps. Two policemen and a police woman guarded the only functioning pump in town. No one, not one ungenerous Ethiopian objected as the pump attendant FILLED my tank. Now THAT is ungrudging and tolerant, two qualities I think I will find many Ethiopians embody, now that my mood is less mean and weary. Everyone laughed and good-heartedly enjoyed my amazement. What’s more, it was cheapest petrol I ever bought since the gauge on the pump appeared defunct. It must have been less than 40 pence a litre! Earlier, the black market price had been £1.50… The real price, when available has been about 50 pence I think, and that’s the problem: government subsidy has made fuel half the price of neighbouring countries and the suppliers object. I’m not sure how I will go on, but Balguda and Degife this evening reckon that as a tourist I will be able to find fuel despite the month-long shortages. We will see.

So, a day that began rather badly, and continued as a struggle, seems to be ending more equably. Perhaps a decent sleep – this is a Christian town, so less mosques – may restore me to travel mode. Maybe I need a rest and should pause tomorrow. In a week, since I left Kitale, I have ridden a little over 1000 miles – at about 35 miles an hour! I am deeply weary. 

DAY 24. FRIDAY JANUARY 4th 2019. ZIWAY (AKA, BUUTAA, it seems), ETHIOPIA

Without doubt, Ethiopia is the most welcoming and friendly country I have visited in my almost 100 countries around the world. I have fallen, in just three days, for these astonishing people. They are unique. Everywhere I go, I meet generosity and smiles, greetings and curiosity. It is truly wonderful! 

But… and there’s a big but. I think I came to a decision this afternoon. There is no way I can achieve my original plan to see a huge circuit of the country. I’ve been riding for over a week now, and covered about 1100 miles. I am exhausted. I haven’t even reached Addis yet! The circuit I had in mind, will take me a further 1000 miles around the country – and then I have to ride this same, exhausting road back to Kenya. Even my obstinate determination balks at the idea. My Mosquito is just too small. Then, of course, I have to buy all my fuel on the black market, which seems quite possible, as it’s the way all Ethiopians are still travelling around. Well, actually, most of them are queueing at immense lines at the few petrol stations still selling their fuel – those that haven’t sold to the black marketeers! I am fortunate in having the money to purchase at a premium (£1 a litre, still cheap for me…). The availability of fuel is influencing many of my routing decisions. 

Another consideration is the traffic. Having now ridden in 22 African countries, I am appalled at the standard of driving and the free for all that is driving in this country. This is the second most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria. There are eighteen-wheelers, matatus, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, bicycles, clapped out trucks, overloaded donkey carts, sheep, goats, cows – and the most ill-disciplined pedestrians I ever witnessed. The latter are perhaps the most dangerous! The roads – the much dreamed-of Pan African Highway, is broken and narrow and FULL of those bloody donkey carts. Everyone pushes and tries to get by. It’s mayhem – and very stressful. I’m probably one of the most observant on the road, but it’s still a huge strain to ride thus. No way do I want to volunteer for an extra 1000 miles of it…

When I get to Addis Ababa, I will review my journey. Perhaps I can find some reasonably priced internal flights to the far north to see some of the sights. I need information, and that’ll only be available in Addis. I may have to stay a few days in the city, since Christmas is coming.

Yes, I did write that! When I crossed into Ethiopia, I changed to the Julian calendar. Today is the 26th day of the eleventh month of 2011. Christmas comes on the 29th of this Ethiopian month. Monday is Christmas Day!

****

I rode only 70 miles today, although it feels like 170! A huge gale blew directly in my face. Apparently it’s pretty much a daily occurrence at this season, the mountain winds attracted by the relative cool of the several large lakes here in the Rift Valley. With the wind came clouds of tiring dust. I was sand-blasted most of the journey, stressed by the traffic conditions and worn out by the wind and distance. It wasn’t fun. I had to wend my way through various crazy towns and any view was veiled by white dust. I was heading for Meki, another 20 kilometres up the road – my friends of last evening had recommended it as a quiet place. When I finally reached this town, variously named Ziway and Baatuu – in the manner I keep finding, in which my map disagrees with the locals – I decided to stop for coffee. Spotting a likely place – there are thousands, as coffee drinking is a cultural thing – I decelerated quickly to go back.

It was then that my front chain sprocket flew off the Mosquito! 

At least it happened in town. Within moments a young fellow was proffering the lost sprocket, and instantly people gathered. One man, with a bit of basic English, pointed up the road, indicating that there was a mechanic two or three hundred yards ahead. I pushed the Mosquito, it’s light enough, fortunately. Ignoring hoots and crazy traffic, I pushed the silent machine to the mechanic, who operated from a tin shelter beside rough-block single storey buildings. In about three or four minutes he had found a suitable nut and washer from an old tin trunk in which he kept his few battered tools, and screwed back the cog, tightened the chain and checked the bike. For this, Bariso refused payment, but I insisted he took a pound. Some of the gathered boys procured eight litres of black market petrol from around the corner. 

Bariso’s brother had arrived almost instantly; the presence of a white man seems to be an instantaneous item of news, without any apparent messages being conveyed; they just seem to know. Eyasuu, spoke some simple English, proudly showing me his certificate from a hotel company for the 42-hour basic English course he had completed in 2006. He, too, was friendliness itself, as were all those around me. I felt instantly comfortable and warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely feeling; very much a feature of this country.

“I need buna (coffee),” I told Eyasuu. “Let’s have coffee!” There was, of course, a coffee house within ten yards. I left the Mosquito, confident that it was completely safe, and we entered the coffee shack. Then ensued the most enjoyable, delightful hour and a half. It’s for times like this that I travel, and it’s times like this that put the horrible journeys back in focus; makes them worthwhile after all. 

Bamboo settees ranged along the walls, which were draped in striped fabric, with cultural posters of the buna ceremony hung above the casual men seated inside. On the floor were spread fresh green palm fronds. Lema, a very beautiful young woman (Ethiopian young women are frequently spectacularly pretty) was enthroned on a small pedestal, sitting on a sort of stool like a throne, a low table decorated with balanced coffee cups before her. It IS like an altar, and the coffee is treated with great respect, giving the whole ceremony religious tones. To one side was a brazier of charcoal in which she heated her black, pottery coffee pot with its long curved spout. Wide red trousers, a white top and a light scarf thrown across her neck, with deep, dark eyes and a lovely light complexion, it struck me that in her rituals and her command of her small shack from her raised podium, she possessed all the qualities of a priestess dispensing religious rites, her beauty and confident poise obviously an attraction for the gathered men. 

Two buckets of orange roses, grown in hot houses for export down the road, stood on the small bamboo tables. We were nine men seated, chattering and laughing, a few words of English from one or two of them making conversation possible. Some of them chewed qat (pronounced chat), the mildly addictive drug that is harvested hereabouts and one of the main earners. It must be eaten fresh, so the roads are crowded with racing suppliers, and much of it is exported by the plane load to the Arab states, not far away now. It brings a state of mild euphoria and I suppose reduces appetite like coca leaves in South America. To everyone’s amusement, I tore off a couple of leaves to try. It tasted like privet (not that I ever chewed privet, but it’s how I imagine it tastes!), and of course you must chew for some days at least to begin to feel the effects. Many people have badly brown-stained teeth, dark brown. Eyasuu told me his were a result of the water from the nearby lakes but I doubt qat helps much. I don’t think I’ll take it up with my very expensive recent implants! 

It was a delightful time, a feeling of complete equality, curiosity about each other, warmth and smiles and jokes. My angst fell away and I drifted into a comfortable satisfaction. And of course, the coffee was fabulous. It’s worth coming to Ethiopia just for the coffee. 

****

At last I felt I should move on. By now there seemed little point in riding the last twenty kilometres just because I’d been told that Meki was quiet. Eyasuu and his friends recommended a hotel 500 metres up the road, and Bariso jumped on his bike to lead me there. I’ve a half-decent, slightly tired room with a very comfortable bed, a bathroom with warm water, a small terrace and there’s a bar and restaurant behind the palm trees across the dust. It’s not bad. Extravagant for Ethiopia – at £10.30. The road is still noisy 100 yards away, but I just have to accept that in Africa’s second most populous country, it’s going to be noisy wherever I go. I’ve never seen so many people everywhere. 

With luck, and no more breakdowns, I’ll get to Addis tomorrow. It’s just 100 miles or so now. There I will have to take stock and decide how to go forward. I do want to experience more of these delightful people, but I really doubt I have the stamina to ride almost 2000 more miles – and enjoy the process… 

DAY 25. SATURDAY JANUARY 5th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA

Sometimes things just go wrong… Today’s just gone totally tits up from beginning to end. Late this afternoon, I found that my passport is missing. On these journeys it lives in my wallet in my inside jacket pocket, and all day I didn’t remove my jacket until I reached the place I am staying tonight. I used it yesterday afternoon to check in to the hotel in Ziway. Tonight, I don’t have it… Honestly, I’d rather lose my camera or iPad – the only other valuables I carry. At least money can replace those. A lost passport is a gigantic hassle, plus it’s Sunday tomorrow and Christmas Day on Monday – and British embassies only work about half a year and take ALL holidays, ours and the host’s. Even the Queen’s birthday is holiday for them! Probably the Queen of Sheba’s too.

The hotel in Ziway is not answering their phone. If it’s lost it must be there, but if it was stolen or mislaid (by falling upwards out of my inside pocket?) I suppose I just have to accept the hassle and a long stay in Addis. Well, unless it’s in Ziway, that’s the only option.

So tonight I write in a rather depressed state…

It was another wearing, unsettled day anyway – even before this disaster.

****

Riding north, I decided I may not be riding any further around this enormous country. The traffic is the worst, most undisciplined, terrifying I have ever witnessed. The roads are broken and narrow and the vehicles pushing to make any progress. Frankly, I decided I value my life more than seeing Ethiopia from my bike at thirty miles an hour. I hate the sense of failure but I have travelled long enough to follow my instincts. I’m just not enjoying riding here. I love the people; the culture’s fascinating, but moving around Ethiopia is beyond me. I thought perhaps I could make some trips internally by air – but that was before the passport fiasco… Now that takes precedence over everything.

 

It was a ghastly ride. One of the worst I can remember. Even Kampala didn’t upset me the way this journey did. Competitive traffic, no one ever looks behind: they just pull out; cows, donkeys, mules, sheep, dogs, camels and goats crossing everywhere; pedestrians who seem to have a death wish; minibuses that scream past, then stop right in front of me; ancient trucks lumbering up hills belching filth in my face; holes a foot deep in what’s left of the tarmac; the appalling three wheeled tuk-tuks, whose casual drivers go wherever they like, many of them texting or checking their phones and not one of them checking their mirrors, turning in the road at will; and the donkey carts that hold everyone else up and make everyone take even more risks, even a cyclist I knocked off when he rode straight into me! Uganda is skilful by comparison. And I thought THAT was bad. I really don’t want to ride here any more. Except I have those 500 miles to get back to Kenya.

****

These journals are written every day. There’s no time to rationalise my reactions. I just write as it happens. I’ve always thought that was their value. When I am happy, it is reflected in my entries; when I am gloomy, tired, upset, angry it’s also in the words. Tonight’s a low. Even my iPad has decided to start mis-keying again. I thought the drop on the floor had repaired that. 

I am so obstinate that I HATE this feeling of despair and failure. Disappointment too. I had such high expectations for Ethiopia and I DO think its people extraordinary, friendly and charming. But travelling here is beating the fun out of me. 

Maybe I’ll be better for some sleep, although I think it’ll be hard to rest tonight. I am too anxious. 

I was going to upload an episode of my journal tonight, but I think I’ll keep it until I HAVE rationalised things a bit. This is too depressing an entry to leave it here. A journal cliff-hanger too far… 

DAY 26. SUNDAY JANUARY 6th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA

MY PASSPORT IS FOUND!!!!! Phew… So now I can update an episode so that I end on a high note rather than that downbeat cliff-hanger!

Around dawn, at last I fell into a fitful sleep, having fretted and worried for hours, going over and over when I last saw my passport and every minute detail I could remember of what I had done since. I even, almost superstitiously, got up in the early hours and searched the room again with my torch. Of course, to no avail. I just had to accept that I am here for days with hours and hours to spend at the police, the embassy and Ethiopian immigration. What’s done is done – but it’s difficult to accept. I lost attention for once, after 130-something trips with a passport, amounting to about twelve years out of my home country.

I woke at almost nine, still anxious and depressed. I’m staying in a slightly hippy, Lonely Planet sort of guest house – places I generally avoid as I prefer to find local places, not those that attract all the white people. But Rico recommended this place, as I would be able to get information about mechanics and would find other over-land bikers here.

Bullant is from Turkey, straggly grey hair, perhaps in his late fifties, and has been on the road on his motorbike for two and a half years, from Australia through Asia to Africa. He greeted me and asked how my night had been – and I told him, bad, because my passport is gone. We commiserated for a while, then, using his international phone (mine only has a Kenyan sim card and I need a passport to get an Ethiopian one..!) we tried the number of the small hotel company that owned the hotel in Ziway (pron: zw-eye). I spoke to a charming fellow called Tedla, explained my predicament, and asked HIM to phone Ziway on my behalf as I doubted they spoke much English.

Half an hour later, Tedla phoned back, “Your passport is found!” I almost burst into tears of emotional relief! I could hardly thank him. “But we can’t bring it to you until Thursday. It is Christmas, but the regional manager will bring it to Addis on Thursday. You should phone me on Wednesday and we can meet at the Heber Ethiopia, it’s a traditional restaurant on Bole Road.” Since I want to get work done on the Mosquito, that’s not bad, except I must stay in this city for five or six days. Oh well, I will try to find the local atmosphere and relax. I can’t face those last sixty kilometres back towards Ziway, the worst I have ridden – and motorbikes aren’t permitted to use the parallel expressway, probably the best road in the country, so I’d rather wait to meet Tedla and the regional manager here. 

****

Soon after the news came through that my passport was safe and sound (and my EU passport is valid for another five years and I DO NOT want a Brexit passport) I met Alice, a charming, talkative young woman who cheered my day entirely. Alice is of Malay Chinese extraction, from Melbourne, Australia and a committed traveller, aged 30; in fact she’s 40 years and a day younger than me. She has been delightful company all day, arriving as she did from Egypt early this morning. I’ve relaxed in good cheerful company for the whole day, mostly talking ten to the dozen in the guest house outdoor bar area. It’s a wonderful thing that, like motorcycling, travel enthusiasm can bond people over wide variations of culture, class, race and even age. I spot many similarities of character between us. She’s a smart, open minded young woman who travels all over the world alone – recently all over Pakistan. She’s lived in England and looks at her more conventional friends with no scrap of envy as they drop into their round holes. It’s been a very enjoyable conversation, with just a short walk about the quiet Sunday city. Alice helped to restore some travel spirit in me. 

Seldom do I stay in hostels like this, filled with white people from all over. But I am getting information about travelling in this country, from people travelling the other way and so on. I am told that the road north is one of the best in the country. Rereading my last few days of travelling, I can see the gloom into which exhaustion cast me. Perhaps I will see it all more positively in a day or two, especially when I can be sure the Mosquito will continue to carry me reliably. Somehow I will see some of the northern sights, perhaps combining the bike and a flight or two. All to be decided when I recoup some energy and get information. Watch this space.

Happy Christmas, again. Tomorrow is Ethiopian Christmas so I expect another rather slow day. Probably that’s just what I need…

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EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – TWO

DAYS 9 to 14. DECEMBER 20th to 25th 2018. KITALE, KENYA

There’s been something of a hiatus in my diary writing. My iPad travelled to Nairobi while I waited up here in Kitale. Fortunately, the infrastructure of Kenya is such that I was able to very efficiently courier the device door to door (with G4S) to an Apple approved repairer in the capital, where they fixed it in a day and returned it by the same courier. I sent it on Thursday and received it yesterday, Christmas Eve, the previous day being Sunday. Four days, in East Africa: that’s efficient. It did cost £250 for the repair but that’s the international price. 

Now I have my device back (lacking sensitivity, however, and forcing me to type much harder and it’s making many mis-keys. Bah…) and the journal can continue. 

The days pass quietly here in Kitale, home for now. Adelight and I are comfortable company, we can go to town companionably – she doing her shopping, me observing street life patiently. At home we eat simple breakfasts and lunches – sliced brown bread, eggs, jam, margarine, peanut butter and so forth. At night we eat rice, spaghetti, ughali with meat and sauce, filling food. Finances are tight, always tight in Africa. There are many demands on scant resources: endless school fees and costs, services and repairs; mouths to feed, clothes to buy, even if they are second hand. It’s not easy to balance expenses against irregular income, and Rico the only wage earner just now. Adelight and Scovia have a scheme afoot to start mushroom farming. With Scovia probably able to sell ice to Eskimos and sand to Arabs, it’s a practical proposition to create some independence. 

Early each evening, Rico and I enjoy our beers on the porch. We met 31 years ago and of course we don’t think we have changed at all! The conceit of age. He turned 70 this year, me next year. For both of us Africa has been the largest influence of our lives, he living and dealing with it every day, almost since that first Sahara crossing in 1987/8, with a large extended family, and me returning so frequently, so much of my thought and character shaped by my experiences on this varied and wonderful continent. It’s an easy friendship, based on many shared values and our appreciation of African life, a significance the very start of which we shared on our first African journey together. Pity the beer’s not better, but I can’t expect everything and for now the contentment of family life is enough. We are a small household right now, just Adelight and Rico, Marion and Scovia and baby Maria. The other girls are mostly away with their birth families, so it’s quiet. 

Today is Christmas Day, my sixth Christmas running in Africa. It’s warm and sunny but there’s really no spare money to celebrate. Everyone is accepting of this, thankful for what they DO have, rather than what they would like to have. There are no presents this year. I’ve given the two girls some money; we all went for drinks and chicken and chips at the Kitale Club yesterday, that strange colonial hangover, its old golf club officials with British names until the last few decades. Photos of old colonials twist and curl in fading frames, the service is terrible, the food mediocre, but it’s a place to meet and relax beside the greens, gazing across the clipped grass, so unAfrican, to the blue slopes of Mount Elgon behind blossoming trees. The sun is bright up here at 6000 feet and the clouds white against the blue of the equatorial sky. Some men putt on the nearby green, a pump roars behind the bouncy castle; there’s a blue pool and children play as we drink and chat, and gaze at the horizon. Cows graze the distant fairways. Scovia and Marion enjoy a glass of wine, “Only for birthday, Christmas and 31st!” laughs charming Scovia, 20, large round earrings glinting in the sunlight. 

And today I made personal history: I went shopping for groceries in town – on Christmas Day, much the same as any other day in Kitale. Food tends to be fresh, unprocessed, unfrozen and bought every day. You can’t store fresh food in this climate, you must eat it as much from field to plate as possible. We needed more beer, a chicken and the endless supply of two bread loaves (all cased in plastic of course). I added a pineapple and a bottle of Kenyan rose wine from Naivasha. It is Christmas after all, a time for treats, however small. Adelight has cleaned the house, the girls helping, for everyone has their task. It’s pretty much an ordinary day, except for the fir branch in the corner with its winking lights. This is not the material festival it has become in the ‘wealthy’ North…

DAY 15. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 26th, 2018. KITALE, KENYA

Christmas is over and done once again. Now it’s time to begin to think about my safari… 

Our festival was low key but happy and content. Adelight, having cleaned the house and washed all the floors, cooked apparently contentedly in the kitchen, to the sound of non-stop Christmas music. Soup for lunch and chicken, beef, samosas and chapattis for supper, with our Dutch neighbour and old colleague of Rico’s, Cor, and his wife Nancy joining us. No presents were exchanged or emotionally struggled over, prices compared, generosity weighed, the embarrassment and angst: that doesn’t happen in lean years. No one complains, they just enjoy what there is, a cheerful family being together, sharing what they have. It is refreshing indeed to spend the holiday thus!

DAY 16. THURSDAY DECEMBER 27th, 2018. KITALE, KENYA

This will be my last day in Kitale for now. I won’t stay to see in 2019 because my Ethiopian visa is limited: I have to be out again by February 12th. And Ethiopia is both a long way from Kitale – at least three full days’ riding, maybe four,  and a huge country – twice the size of France (or Texas)… So I will leave tomorrow morning. Most of today, then, was spent setting up for my journey, sorting my scant luggage, repairing bits of panniers, checking things and preparing for what I hope will be a fascinating journey – into a new country for me. Now that my safari is about to begin, I am both really looking forward to it, and feeling nervous – the usual state.

Delightful Scovia took me for a ‘nature walk’ as she, so recently finished with secondary school, called it: a walk around the neighbourhood. Not far behind the many, and increasing number of private houses in this residential area, spreading already six kilometres from the town centre, lie shambas and fields, a few small eucalyptus groves and scruffy grazing.  The big curved shoulder of Mount Elgon spread-eagles across the western horizon, the border with Uganda running over its peaks. We walked and chattered comfortably, Scovia a self-assured young woman. Then a heavy shower soaked us and we laughed happily, waving to others sheltering under their rusty zinc eaves as we slithered on the instantly muddy surfaces. 

DAY 17. FRIDAY DECEMBER 28th, 2018. ELDAMA RAVINE, KENYA

The big journey begins! I’ve only managed 150 miles of it so far – with maybe 1000 more to go, even to get me to Addis Ababa! Wow. When I look at the map, I see how little of Kenya I have seen… The vast empty desert quarter to the north will take me at least three days to ride. I skirted its southern edge last year; I remember the expansive view from the northern slopes of Mount Kenya, stretching far, far beyond the eye could see, somewhere immensely far beyond the horizons. In the foreground fields of vibrantly yellow rapeseed, beyond just pinks and greys until they faded into the immense arc of the African sky. That’s where I am heading – somewhere into my own unknown. It’s exciting. I’m actually happy that it is so far; it seems more exotic somehow. It’s a challenge I relish. (At the moment!)

Despite being just a couple of miles north of the Equator tonight, it can be chilly riding at these altitudes and I am surprisingly tired. Much of the afternoon I rode at above 7000 feet. The air is clear as crystal, cool and fresh. It’s a delight. Most of my journey today was on roads I know well; indeed, I stayed in Eldama Ravine two years ago, in the noisiest hotel of my African experience! The disco downstairs vibrated the entire structure and my ear plugs just seemed to swell the bass beats. The disco continued all night, and I think it was also a Friday – so there was no way I was stopping at the Chambai Springs Hotel in town, but ahead of me I saw dark rain clouds so I cut short my ride here. Off the road, up 300 yards of appalling track, I found a big hotel. As I pulled into the yard, heavy bass beats filled the yards. Maybe all Eldama Ravine rocks on a Friday? “I’m looking for a place to sleep,” I told friendly Sharon behind a rough reception in a corner of the concrete restaurant. “You don’t have a disco tonight..?” 

She laughed. “No, the music will be only an hour more! We have a party of students by the pool!”

She showed me a couple of rooms, which, apart from dire mauve and purple decor, were inoffensive and good value at £11.80. I moved in with a smile. My needs are few: a clean bed, a warm shower and a long sleep to relax the bike-shaken bones. 

****

The police usually stop me out of curiosity, no other motive. Lovely Zimbabwe is the only place I am hassled by police. “Where do you go?” asked the young traffic constable. “Oh, I’m on my way to Ethiopia,” I replied, anticipating a reaction. “By plane..?”

“No! On this!” I become a wonder, a story to be told. I ride away the centre of amazed faces, of good natured jokes and the focus of many wide white smiles. They seldom then ask to see my papers. For most of them, it’s a wonder that I have ridden from Kitale, 10 miles away.

****

It was almost eleven thirty before I left Kitale, reluctantly taking my farewell of my Kenyan extended family. I’ll return in about six weeks, but Rico hopes to be on contract in Zambia by then. I hope he may be back before I leave Kitale in March. I feel so warmly welcomed there now, my third Christmas holiday with them all. We posed for a cheerful photo, eating our pieces of Christmas cake, which has become a small tradition: my friend Pat Mill’s delicious cake, a kind gift she has given me for the past three years. 

Then I was on the road eastwards into the rolling hills towards the ugly city of Eldoret, which I miss by a few miles and head back towards Iten, the runners’ town above Kessup on the very lip of the dramatic Rift Valley. I know all these roads well. All but six or seven miles are on good tarmac, sweeping through magnificent highland hills, clothed in tall dark conifers and waving eucalyptus. The verges are wide; there’s plenty of space up here. Standing way back from the road are fences of vertical spilt logs, smallholdings and small fields surrounding tin-roofed dwellings. There are cattle everywhere; children too, many of whom wave. I climb slowly higher and higher, cooler and cooler. I consider stopping to put on another layer, but I know that eventually I will descend and it’ll warm again. I pass one of my favourite hotels, the old faded colonial Kaptagat Hotel in its old gardens, a tattered hotel where I enjoy the aroma and warmth of a cedar fire in my bedroom with its polished boarded floors. Pity I can’t stop tonight: I’d be warmly welcomed, but it’s only 2.30 and I have a thousand miles to ride. I pass the top of that wonderful serpentine down into the valley and the fluorspar mines, but I rode that magic last week. I sweep along; stop at a viewpoint where the enormous valley suddenly comes sight – it’s evasive most of the way. Women and children sell fresh muddy potatoes from small stacks, amused that the mzungu has stopped. They immediately gather round me. It’s just curiosity, something to pass some time, an event on the usual endless day sitting at the roadside staring into space. You must get used to this focus of attention, the nearness of people discussing every feature of you and your possessions. But everyone smiles happily and waves me on my way. 

Then Eldama Ravine, not a pretty town. It sprawls across a hillside, new concrete mixed with faded concrete, rusted zinc and garish shiny paintwork advertising all the phone companies. The African norm is not maintenance but eventual replacement, so new structures fade and crack, peel and stain, break and crumble back into the scruffiness of age. Someday, they’ll be pulled down and left gestating as heaps of rubble for a decade or two. Then a newly hopeful project will arise – and slowly succumb to the same fate. It’s the African cycle.

****

Solomon, shaking my hand, tells me he’s the owner of this hillside hotel. He made his money working for Anglo-American Mines, he says, in various parts of the world. He is one of twenty children; his father had three wives. Father was uneducated but made money, initially, as always in Africa, cattle, then buying trucks, then local politics – astute moves. “He managed to educate us all. Fifteen of us to university. I went to study in Romania. I speak Romanian, and French. I worked in Congo for ten years. But this is my home. My father, he gave each son twenty acres. But so many children was a lot of stress. He had diabetes, his legs amputated. He died in 2003, aged 73. We have a reunion once a year. There are about 100 grandchildren! If we meet here, we can fill the hotel.” Exponential is a word you come to respect in African demographics.

And then it’s 8.30 and I realise that I am exhausted, full of not bad chicken curry, served with sour local vegetables and a couple of greasy African chapattis. A bottle of Tusker and that’s it for another day. Now all I ask is a comfortable bed and quiet… Another day on the road.

DAY 18. SATURDAY DECEMBER 29th, 2018. NANYUKI, KENYA

Another 170 miles nearer Ethiopia, but still a long way to go! Tonight finds me in Nanyuki, on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, a town known for its British army training centre, which gives it, I think, a price of its own – higher than usual. The Kenyan government makes good money from the British government for this intrusion. But despite the abnormal costs of Nanyuki, not a pretty town, I just did the best hotel deal of my African travels!

Quite shameless after all this time, I usually manage to get a good rate by a bit of bargaining and play-acting my disappointment when tariffs are too high. I don’t think I EVER managed a 74% discount before though, down from £59 a night (at which this place would still be over-priced by about double, I reckon) to my budget limit of £15.75! Haha! Done it again. Well, the middle-aged mzungu owner happens to be a biker so the old fraternity, that crosses all barriers of race, creed, age and culture, works once more. “Don’t tell your friends what you’re paying!” My dinner will cost me double, but that’s a small matter. For this discount I can’t really argue and go and eat at a street stall! “I’d rather have the room used for two thousand shillings than empty for nothing, at this time of evening anyway!” This after he’d recommended a place down the track that’d rent me a room within my budget. This place seems to cater to the international trade, booked ahead from the internet, those tunnel-vision organised animal safari guests, racial blinkers firmly in place, who feel more secure with a white man in charge; and showy middle class Kenyans impressing their circles by paying three times the real rate. Oh well, I’ll take the hospitality for a quarter the tariff! To judge by the fifty-some year old overweight mzungu who just entered the dining room with a pretty twenty-some floosie, in high boots and short skirt I can guess at the extra ‘trade’; ‘leering’ is a word that comes to mind, watching as he moves alongside from the opposite side of their table. Oh well, a 74% discount’s fine, even if I am generally more comfortable in more ‘local’ places. 

The owner was born in Kenya when his British father was sent to oversee some details of independence in the early 60s. He’s a rolling stone, it seems, settled for now in Nanyuki, after years in Australia and Switzerland. He intends to lease his place to Americans next year, import another bike, do some riding round and look for the next resting place. It’s interesting to find that the mzungu ownership does mean the taps don’t swivel, the cistern works and the curtain poles don’t crash to the floor. 

Now, after supper, I’m relaxing before a log fire, happy for its warmth tonight. Face burning from the sun and later the chill air, I can reflect slightly soporifically on my day… 

****

It’s been a long day, a feature of which was crossing the proliferations of Equator at least six or seven times. There are a lot of Equators in Kenya. I know it’s only an imaginary line, but I still feel a frisson of excitement when I see the signs, although I suspect some are just where there’s a good place for souvenir stands. I left Eldama Ravine, and headed down to the sun-filled Rift Valley again, heat increasing pleasantly as I rode. Solomon, last night’s hotel owner, told me of a short cut by which I could cut out two sides of a traffic triangle I really dislike, that takes me through the congested, crazy city of Nakuru, on the main, horrid highway across Kenya. “Don’t cross the rail tracks, turn left beside them.” 

It was a rather insignificant rough gravel and rocky road across the valley, about 20 miles. As I rode, I thought smugly of the chaos of Nakuru, where anarchic traffic is amongst the craziest in the country. My road was convoluted, generally following an old, long-defunct railway track between cactus, thorn trees and scrub, past invisible landmarks redolent of old colonial engineers: ‘McCall’s Siding’, ‘Milton’s Siding’, buried now in red earth. In the valley below were huge areas under dirty sand-faded plastic. It’s from these regions that out of season flowers come, flown (ridiculously) in jumbo jets to the flower markets of Europe every day. I bounced through isolated villages, across an unmarked Equator or two, pursued by a thousand eyes and smiling faces, past hundreds of shambas, through road blocks of flocking sheep, dodging cattle everywhere. At last I emerged onto a tar road, took a wrong turning and wasted ten kilometres until I stopped to ask my way from Joseph, a friendly boda-boda rider. Then it was the long, long climb up to the top of Kenya, as far as roads go at least, to Nyaharuru, the highest town. And it IS a long ride with only 200ccs to power me to the heights. But it’s a magnificent journey, up and up into the green heights, getting colder every twist in the road. Crossing yet another putative Equator, at 2350 metres high, I stopped to look back across the intervening valleys, zinc roofs glinting in the high, bright sun, then, finally, rode on into Nyaharuru, an untidy hill town full of traffic. 

The old Thomson’s Falls Hotel is stuck in the same time warp as the Kitale Club, spinning around in about 1960, with fake painted half-timbering, wide red zinc eaves, it’s waiters dressed in crumpled, ill-fitting second-hand black suits, unsuitable for the culture, let alone the climate. I stopped for a quaintly amusing hour to drink masala tea (tea with ginger and spices) from one of those ill-designed utility teapots that never pour without leaving a puddle on the table. Nearby, the falls roar over a rocky edge, tumbling into a gorge, watched by a couple of hundred local tourists, this weekend day. Souvenir stands abound outside but one of the best ways to see the falls is to buy a pot of tea in the old colonial gardens of the hotel! 

From there it is a tedious ride on a busy highway, idiots returning to the capital from their Christmas breaks, driving erratically over the long hills and sweeps of the wide road, the lovely scenery ignored in haste to be in front. Away to the south is the range of the Aberdares, tightly clothed in dark forests, the parks and reserves where big game roams in protected safety. To the north, now beneath heavy rain clouds, stretches a vast tract of lowland. Rain was closing in; I stopped to put on my waterproof coat against the cold. When the sun stops shining, the smile goes out of the African landscape. 

Soon I had to stop to don my waterproof trousers for a heavy, cold shower. I pulled off the road to shelter with boda-boda riders beneath one of their stick and tin shelters, most emblazoned with the generosity of the local politician who, vote-hungry, provided a little sun and rain cover for his struggling constituents as he appropriated their limited rights into his own bank account. 

These boda-boda men, a couple of them in their middle age, but most in their twenties, probably think themselves lucky to make a pound or two a day: there are so many of them. Yet they have an apparently unlimited capacity for welcome and friendliness, especially with a fellow biker and a mzungu who treats them as equals. I enjoyed twenty minutes waiting out the worst of the shower with them, curious about my journey. Their bikes are worn out, covered in stickers, battered, dented and most likely unsafe, but they provide a living of sorts in a country where, through vast over-population, unaffordable education, misappropriation of funds, exploitation by the outside world and bad government, most struggle along on a few Kenyan bob a day, made however they can. Many of these young men – and the matatu drivers – don’t own their vehicles. They are ‘rented’ from richer Kenyans, many of them policemen and politicians… Life is hard for the average Kenyan. Yet they still have that fine capacity for open, generous friendliness to a passing mzungu, a being from another world entirely. THAT is the wonder of Africa! 

DAY 19. SUNDAY DECEMBER 30th, 2018. ARCHERS POST, KENYA

Going back to places in Africa is so rewarding. I met and stayed with Rebecca almost eighteen years ago. She was a relative of Rico’s first Kenyan wife, Anna. She’s an impressive woman, forging her own path in the man’s world that is Africa. I have so often written here that if the women of Africa could be empowered, this wouldn’t be the basket case continent that is its trend. Rebecca is a case in point. About 25 years ago she and a few like-minded women formed a women’s cooperative, against a lot of male opposition. She’s just as impressive and powerful all these years later. The cooperative now runs a school with 200 pupils, that was graded sixth out of 31 local schools, maintains an ethnic ‘village’ open to tourists, and now a fine bar with a few bandas (grass-roofed huts for rent) beside the river. They have stood out against female genital mutilation and rigorously supported the rights of their girls and women. In 2001 the project was in its early days, now it is well established and Rebecca tells me she is even to make a speech at this year’s International Women’s Day in Italy shortly. I’ve just drunk three bottles of beer with her and Sophia, the vice chair of the Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission. “The only person we can’t arrest is the President!” (He being perhaps the first they should arrest…). “I’m second in command.” Sophia is a local product too, her intelligence encouraged, she tells me, by the catholic church. For a woman from a northern tribe to become a high ranking, respected member of the administration is a reflection of her determination. Impressive women…

****

Today was an easy day, just 100 miles or so. I left Nanyuki late, chatting to William, my host of last night. It turned out that we had a lot in common, apart from the biking. He built scenery in Australia, understood my bizarre profession and loves to travel. Not surprisingly, we had a lot to talk about before I finally got away at 11.30.

The road north is busy this weekend; it’s still a major holiday with traffic returning Nairobi or heading for a few last days at some of the attractions in the northern region, game parks and reserves. My companions at breakfast, a Nairobi couple with a small daughter, chatted over our fruit and scrambled eggs. He works for one of the national media companies, print and TV. He told me that it takes him up to two hours to get to work. He rises at 5.00am and gets home at 8.00pm. “Nothing to do but work eight hours a travel another three or four!” That’s life for many professionals across the continent. Their holiday was an obvious relief.

At last I got on my way, on a good road that skirts around the lower slopes of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second mountain. Away to my right, the peaks of the mountain appeared from the bright white clouds, snow and tenacious (reducing) glaciers visible on the highest, jagged points. The light up here is so extreme that it seems to wash out the natural colours of the soil and vegetation to faded pale colours. It’s a lovely landscape, spoiled rather by square kilometres of dirty plastic hot houses, producing vegetables and flowers for our greedy European markets.

Almost a year ago I stopped for coffee at a cafe and restaurant in this northern country. They had a real coffee machine, a rarity in Kenya. When I stopped today, a young woman appeared to greet me. “You stopped here before!” said Lucy, correctly. Amazing, at least eleven months on, and she remembered me. A bright, friendly young woman, with her sister, Isabella and their friend Kananu, they were delightful company and conversation for a relaxed hour over good coffee and cake. Fancy remembering me! But then, I suppose white-bearded mzungus on motorbikes don’t call every day.

****

My first view of the great expanses of the north came soon after. Suddenly, the hills dropped away to reveal a hundred miles of pale green landscapes and distant blue mountains. There’s been a great deal of rain this year; William said they’d had an exceptional four and a half metres of rain in the last three months in Nanyuki. Even today there were light rain showers as I descended to the dry bush lands, heavy rain streaking the skies to the west. 

I am now entering the Africa that you know from picture books. The hills fall back to make occasional tall punctuations to level lands. Flat-topped thorn trees abound and the soil is rocky, volcanic stones like sponges lying on the dry earth amongst spiky undergrowth.  Women sport layer upon layer of rings of beadwork around their necks, each intricate layer indicating their status. Herdsmen, with large flocks of goats, wear colourful cloths like sarongs and distinctive hairstyles. These are desert people, cattle herders living in simple homes of thatch and stick. The sun beats down uncompromisingly, a harsh, steely light.

****

Archers Post is a low lying, sandy town of small lock up shops and rude housing. I remembered roughly where to look for Rebecca. In 2001, Rico, his sister and her husband, and his cousin and wife, and I all stayed in her small concrete block compound, in which she’d build, “With my OWN hands!” a few guest rooms, hot, basic spaces. It’s still a rough guest house, now owned by her divorced husband, Fabien, and his soon-wed young wife. Samburu men, or any other tribe of the 3000 odd in Africa, have little time and much jealousy for strong, independent women. “Oh, he tried to spread the stories! How I was going with wazungu! How I took men. But I don’t need them! I have my work. I represent my women. I love my work! Have you seen me with men? I asked; have you? My sons, they came back slowly. There, that is my son there…” A burly fellow, now in his thirties, whom I once met, aged about fifteen. “Oh, I love my work! It is enough!”

She now manages the campsite, a fine bar overlooking the fast flowing brown river, and the cultural village amongst thorn hedges. It’s a well kept, tidy operation, secure and popular with wazungu guests visiting the large national game parks. “You will stay here tonight! I am happy you came back!” Rebecca likes her beer, downing bottles of White Cap lager through the hot afternoon beside the river, holding court, this matriarch of the community. 

“Tell me about Rico. Is he happy? I love Rico! In Kitale? That’s good, Turkana is a tough place.” Rico lived some years in Turkana, way up in the tribal wilds of the far north. It IS a rough place… Rico’s first Kenyan wife, a Turkana woman, Anna, was a cousin to Rebecca; their fathers were brothers from here, but Anna’s father fled to Turkana as a young man. There he took various wives and produced a large family, shunning his home people. It was Anna who found her lost family again, a few years before she died. Rico and Rebecca got to know one another then. But after Anna died the relations soured somewhat, through misunderstandings. 

Earlier, I rode into the thorn-hedged compound of the spread-eagled guest house on the sand and parked the Mosquito in the searing sun. “I’m looking for Rebecca,” I said to the large lady in a full length pink Sunday dress, half-recognising her. “I am Rico’s friend. I stayed with you almost eighteen years ago, and we agreed, ‘if I am passing through Samburu, I must look for you’!” Within moments, after a huge enveloping hug, I was seated with three bottles of beer and Sophia! 

“How is Rico? Oh, I love Rico!” It seemed the misunderstandings were a regret for Rebecca. “How Rico has looked after that family!” and she explained the circumstances of Anna’s dysfunctional Turkana family, with its jealousies and rejections, how Rico took in and brought up so many children. “I LOVE Rico!”

“I want Rico to visit me again. I am happy he has a good wife now. I love Rico!” This cheerful, capable, large woman, now in her late 50s, exclaimed again and again slipping in and out of her local language and English as she told Sophia the stories. The river flowed quietly past, the pale green of the desert stretched to the southern horizon, flat. Music blared, as if from six feet away, but actually 300 yards away, from a phenomenally loud bar where disco lights flashed across the thorn scrub. “It will go on ALL night! I hope it won’t disturb you. They are bad neighbours! What can we do?”

“It WILL disturb me! I am the lightest sleeper. Just as well I have ear plugs. Maybe you should mobilise your women! There you have power!” I know what the threat of withdrawal of conjugal rights can do in this culture – but it has, of course, to be done in unison to avoid punishment. It’s not a light path for women to take in Africa! 

We drank and conversed. The river flowed on by. “Where does it go?” I asked. “It’s a lot of water.”

“To Somalia,” a man told me. “It goes underground and to the Indian Ocean,” said another. Maybe it’s one of those African rivers that dies in the desert?

****

The conversation ranged on. Now I was on my third bottle, still in my boots and riding trousers, uncomfortable, head beginning to throb. Sophia, downed her Belozi lagers, a strong-featured woman in a long black dress, her head wound in an orange and red cloth, falling away and swung casually around her neck. 

The talk turned to a topic that is important to these women, FGM. They have stood bravely against the customs and rituals of their community and prevented the barbarism on their own daughters. But it was too late for them. “Ha! We went on TV!” exclaimed Sophia with big laugh, this obviously commanding woman, who has risen so far and garnered respect on the way. Doubtless, she is a well known national figure. “Oh! I surprised them! The viewers were glued to the TV. I told them what they did to me. I TOLD them! EXACTLY!” She made discomforting slicing gestures in her lap as she laughed. “Not for MY daughter… our daughters!” These are brave women. “Our daughters won’t be abused like that.”

****

My fourth bottle of beer was taken under the bright stars. It was a long time since breakfast now; my head ached from sun, the pounding of the disco across the thorn bushes, concentration on the road and too much alcohol. But the stars provided a wonderful still relief as I tried to relieve my aching neck, gazing into their brilliant depths, more stars than ever visible in Europe. Various people joined our dark table, including an English woman, Wendy, who discovered her love of Africa through VSO. In due course supper was ready, chicken, rice, vegetables and chapattis. “When I was here, they arranged a trip for local people to some of the safari lodges,” said Wendy. “About six or seven matatus lined up, full of elders and local people. I was asked to film their reactions…” Bear in mind that local people never get near these exclusive, expensive places unless as servants. “It was FUNNY! They couldn’t believe it. When they saw the rooms… the bathrooms, they lifted the seats up and down, disbelieving. When we told them the cost, they were so funny! The elders just shook their heads. Wazungu come direct to these places, see the animals, live in seclusion, and think they’ve seen Africa!”

****

And now, at last, I can repair to bed in my round mud and thatch hut, shaking to the beat of the distant disco. One benefit of motorcycling is ear plugs! It’s warm, just a sheet for cover tonight under my mosquito net. It feels more like the tropics this way. Tomorrow is all new country for me. I am still 300 miles, two days, even to the border…

DAY 20. MONDAY DECEMBER 31st, 2018. MARSABIT, KENYA

There are times when you can feel very alone in Africa. Today’s long ride was one of them. Like the Karoo Desert far down in South Africa, the northern deserts of Kenya just seem to stretch endlessly; I am on my own in this infinity, insignificant, sharing the horizons with a few haughty camels, noses disdainfully in the air as I pass, or a flock of ostriches, nature’s joke on the avian world. I ride and ride. Nothing moves but the fluffy white clouds drifting aimlessly about in the deep blue sky. There’s no shade. The sun beats on my helmet. My road goes on and on, no relief. Ancient volcanic plugs rise from the endless level horizons. Red earth. Flat-topped trees. Heat shimmering. 

****

There’s a sense of the exotic about it up here, way beyond the other Kenya now; the Kenya of ‘civilisation’, traffic, cheerful people, boda-boda boys, newspaper sellers, coffee and tea places, people waiting for matatus. Up here, even the matatus are few and far between, boda-bodas almost non-existent: the distances too far. It’s another country. Raw. Harsh. Uncompromising.

It’s the Africa of the picture books; tribespeople from National Geographic. Young women swathed in bright cloths, mainly red, orange and blue; beaded necklace rings, shoulder wide, young teenage, babies at backs. They wave, a flash of bright beaded wristbands and a light brown palm against the dark black of their skins. Young men, tribesmen, decorated, glittering like Christmas trees, tall, thin, athletic. A red cloth wrapped around the waist, torso bare, black skin, beads everywhere. Bizarre headdresses, beads, feathers, pointed bones through their upper ears. Self-aware, parading, exotic. 

****

My lips are parched; I stop to drink some water, my metal bottle filled from the bore hole water at last night’s guest house. “It’s salty!” Rebecca warned me. The bore hole was donated by women in Europe, admiring the work of her cooperative. In Africa water is life. I alleviate the odd flavour with a gulp of juice from my other container and ride on. Still a long way to ride on my little Mosquito at 45mph. 

‘Caution. Animals crossing 200 metres’. Warns a rusted sign with a picture of elephants. But it’s more likely I’ll see cows to dodge on the road, or one of the enormous flocks of sheep common here with these tribes. Or donkeys that never get out of the way. Further on, it will be camels clomping across the tarmac. 

****

Now it’s noon. I’m riding on my own shadow, daydreaming my way towards Ethiopia – slowly. The clouds are thickening, still high and white, but an occasional drift of welcome shadow across the road. A scrappy town on the horizon, a red and white communication tower, a completely dry red river bed beneath a bridge 100 metres wide. This road is new; the bridges in good condition yet. Merille; it’s not even on my map. Tea! I’ll stop for tea. I want to stave off the headache I’ve had the last four afternoons: dehydration, the hot helmet, my tensed neck. 

There’s a ‘hotel’, ‘Travellers Choice’, no apostrophe. Well, it wouldn’t be my choice anywhere else. ‘Hotel’ here means tea house, greasy food, heavy ughali, some broken bones with scraps of flesh. Plastic chairs from China. I pull up in the red sandy street. People look at me. No smiles but no danger either. I’m just sort of totally off their map. They don’t see wazungus here. They rush past in a pother of dust in over-equipped safari vehicles, windows up, remote. Slightly detached people these, some Sudanese here, it’s not far away now, that troubled land. I sip the sweet, milky tea, revolting but restorative. The tea tastes of smoke, but it’s really smoke, not lapsang, water boiled on a wood fire, tea served from an old pink Chinese vacuum flask. “What’s your team?” asks a young man sporting large thick black glasses without lenses. It’s the one thing almost every African, anywhere on the continent, knows about England: football. 

People pass the doorway like a film. Extraordinary earrings on the men, sock-like anklets of beads for the girls. I’m left in peace. I really do feel as if I’m off their radar here. Too exotic for them too, we have little point of contact. “Mzungu!” a child calls out, and I realise I am almost dozing off in the warmth. Beads and spears everywhere, bright cloth, shy smiles, Chinese flip-flops or car-tyre sandals. Bare chests, peacock preening, big belt knives and pangas in beaded sheaths, earrings, headdresses, beads, beads, beads. It does feel like Africa, though. 

****

On again. Still a long ride ahead. A herdsman, red cloth round his waist, bare very black chest, beaded and feathered headdress, balances on one foot watching a multitude of sheep at the roadside. He keeps his balance by leaning on a fine seven foot long, hand wrought spear. He has a mobile phone to his ear. 

“You are brave,” people incorrectly tell me at home, imagining, I suppose, the fighting tribesmen, the snakes I never see, international wars beloved of the western media, the famines, ambush, robbery, marauding animals all behind fences now; who knows, maybe they imagine the natives dancing round the cooking pot! My only bravery is in bringing a mechanical jigsaw that I hardly begin to understand, to a lonely place so far from mechanics who do understand. I listen for the rattle, the misfire, the silence; worst, wait for the wobble that signifies a flat tyre – all of them presaging disaster to my lonely imagination. It’s the main stress of my days. 

A few decades ago, this was one of the most dangerous roads in all Africa. Shiftas, Somali warriors, shot on sight. Life is cheap in the harsh depths of the desert. Or it was marauding tribes hacking each other to death, with a few ‘collateral damage’ victims on the way. They’d not have wanted my camera or iPad, valuables to me, but probably my shoes, valuables to them. A life for a pair of shoes. It was a brutal reality. Now the road is tedious, smooth tarmac all the way these last few years, part of that long ambition of a Trans Africa Highway, a road from Cape Town to Cairo, that’s never been achieved, and that volatile African politics will probably never permit. 

****

I may not need courage, but I do need determination. At last Marsabit is in sight. It’s on a small volcanic mountain range above the desert and has it’s own microclimate, much cooler. I’d expected multiple choices of somewhere decent to stay, but 10 or 12 kilometres touring the place didn’t turn up much. Finally I found the Nomads Trail Hotel and did a deal with Kaseem for a first floor room with only a 25% discount tonight. But it’s a good room and a hot shower. The town’s pretty grim, heavily Moslem and most of it ‘dry’. And here I am on New Year’s Eve having to tour the whole town to find the hidden bar, tucked away on the fourth floor of one of the fading hotels, to even get a bottle of Tusker! I am entirely alone here, looking down over the rusted tin roofs and lights of the ugly town. My hotel – dry – is across the main highway. The bar girl, bored and listless, wanted to draw the curtains. “No, leave them! I enjoy looking out!” I said. 

“But people will see you!” I’m on the fourth floor of a hideous hotel with mirrored glass windows! But that’s the trouble with religious dogma – I feel guilty and a bit subversive to be drinking two not very good Tuskers on New Year’s Eve! Huh. Oh well, I shall be in bed LONG before 2018 is done… At least in an Islamic hotel there’ll be revelry to keep me awake.

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About to begin the ride. We eat Pat’s Christmas cake.

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Scovia

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Maria

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Lucy

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