I’m putting this up while I have some internet, as I will be out of range, so to speak, for a few days…
DAY 92 MONDAY 19th FEBRUARY 2018. MASAKA, UGANDA
It’s taken me until February 19th to spot that I have headed every entry since January 1st as ‘2017’! That’s the trouble with copy and paste…
This morning I began the long ride back to Kenya. I was quite sad to leave the White Horse Inn and its cheerful staff and lovely gardens. But the weather is changing up there and it won’t be long before the rains begin in earnest. As it is, there was a big thunderstorm soon after I went to bed last evening. I’m a good deal lower in altitude now, and it’s pleasantly mild this evening in Masaka, a bustling, not particularly attractive town on the main road back to Kampala, still a day’s ride away. I rode further than I wished today, about 275 kilometres. I did that because the Mosquito isn’t quite happy and I knew help wouldn’t be available until I hit a larger town. It’s pretty scarce here, but I found a fellow called Jahz – middle aged, so I trust him more than the boda-boda butchers – and between us we agreed that all the signs point to adulterated petrol; either water or dirt in the tank. Tomorrow he has someone who will drain and wash out the tank for me before I head east again. We’ll replace the plug again too.
The ride was considerably more relaxing than I feared, so far. This episode of my journal won’t hit my blog site until after the journey’s over, so I can admit that I have been apprehensive of this section of my East African journey for a long time; since I decided to return to Uganda, in fact. Ugandan driving is the worst I have experienced in the seventeen, I think it is, sub-Saharan countries in which I have ridden, and the roads around and approaches to Kampala frightened me last time I rode here. Sadly, there is no route to avoid it. Still, thus far, and I am still many miles from Kampala, the road was calm and lightly used. My way brought me down from Kabale’s heights, sweeping down and into a pleasant ride through high rolling hills, with abundant tree cover and still green from the fairly wet year. Later, the road flattened out into longer waves and drier landscapes. I passed through many a small straggling roadside town, and my principle emotion of the day was to thank my good fortune that I was not born sentenced to live my life in such places. One very strong influence of travelling in Africa is that of gratitude to be able to experience it all – but ultimately to be able to leave it all behind me! It does make me appreciate my privileges and birthright.
Bowling along fifty or sixty kilometres from Kabale, I was flagged down by the police. I was riding at 71kph in a 50kph area! Frankly, I frequently do. The officers were two men and a woman. “You will have to go to the bank and pay!” declared the policewoman, not unfriendly. I was interested that I would have to pay the fine at a bank – an obvious anti-corruption measure. “Well,” I admitted, “it’s a fair cop! I was enjoying the scenery so much; Uganda’s so beautiful! And the road is so good and fun to ride. Such magnificent scenery…” Once again, smiles, cheerful talking and the silver tongue had their way. I am an old hand now. Never argue with an African official, just look suitably contrite and heap praises on the locality and their thoroughness in doing their job so well to keep us all safe. Interest them in my journey; let them laugh at the ‘old muzee’ (the respectful term for older men) riding a motorbike at such an ‘advanced’ age. Well, you get the picture. Charm, it’s called, and I can lay it on when required… especially when the alternative costs £40 in a speeding fine.
“…but we can let you off…” said the policewoman. And actually, I realised as I rode away with a smile, how could they ever know if I paid or not? They could hardly mark it against my (British) licence, or my (Kenyan) registration, and no African computer is efficient to pick me up at the border. It was probably more trouble than it was worth to even fill in the forms.
“How many children have you?” asked the junior policeman.
“Oh, two…” I always invent a couple in these casual situations.
“Only TWO! Why, I have THIRTEEN!”
Sometimes, it’s not even worth starting the argument about the future of the planet, the resources of Uganda, the impossibility of educating thirteen children to any meaningful level… I decided just to express shock – rather, you understand, than express the admiration of his virility he desired. “…With six women!” I heard him shout as I rode away.
“You should control yourself!” I suggested. It was a polite way of saying ‘you should be castrated’!
My parting shot, as I accelerated away, was to call to the policewoman, “you women, you should take control in Africa! You don’t need these bloody men!” Deaf ears, I fear. And once again, my pessimism for the future of mankind on this beleaguered planet shaped my thoughts for the next few miles.
At 8.30, I am sitting here after supper, with a Club beer, rubbing my eyes in weariness. 8.30! I bargained my way into a pretty smart hotel again, on a hill above the sprawling town. It’s airy at least, and after a bit of negotiating, a quid below my £15 budget, from £18. For four months I have paid a maximum of a pound for a pint of beer. It’s going to be such a shock to get back to Harberton at £3.50 plus! Just as well I seldom ever have to negotiate for accommodation in England. It’d cost me £14 to camp in my own tent some places.
DAY 93 TUESDAY 20th FEBRUARY 2018. KAMPALA, UGANDA
A few days ago I was absolutely determined I would not stay in Kampala. Walking just now to find food – tonight’s guest house has no food or drink – I looked at the traffic antics and thought, ‘how does anyone cope with this mess and madness?’ – and then realised that I had driven through it just hours ago. Sometimes I sit in Perry’s big car in the crazy Accra traffic and think the same; but somehow, when you actually have to do it, it’s quite different. In fact, I hate to admit it: it’s quite exhilarating! And Kampala has a certain mad African charm: it’s every man for himself, but not in any aggressive fashion. There’s a sort of community feel to the craziness; no one appears particularly jealous if you manage to weave in front: there’s none of that sense that, if I can’t get ahead, then I won’t let you, that I often get as a biker in Britain. I’d thought I would stay outside the city and ride through to stay the other side, but I relented as I rode into the traffic of the city. My pretty failsafe bump of direction steered me towards the Entebbe road, down which I stayed last year – despite the fact that I approached the city from another direction. I even recognised roughly where I was and then recognised the bike breakers from whom I bought a second hand shock absorber last year. Then I knew exactly where I was and found the ‘Clock Tower’ roundabout, with its red and white colonial tower marooned amongst the craziest traffic in East Africa. I rode south towards Entebbe, just 35 kilometres away towards Lake Victoria, for a few kilometres to get away from the noise of the city, and found a decent guest house up a rutted track off the road; just far enough away to be peaceful. Actually, it’s one of the nicest rooms I’ve rented, in a quiet compound of modern bungalow-style rooms: a large bed, spotless bathroom with warm water, and well appointed – for a little over £12. No breakfast, but that’s easily accomplished on the edge of the big city.
It was after noon before I got away from Masaka. By then Jahz’s boys had stripped my carburettor, emptied and cleaned out my tank and found me two new Japanese spark plugs somewhere in town. Meanwhile, I adjusted the chain and washed the extremely dirty air filter. This was all done on oil and petrol soaked mud at the edge of a piece of town wasteland, during which a downpour added filth to the underfoot conditions. The boys were so friendly, especially Hasim, known as ‘doc’, who spoke the best English of them all; a quietly spoken, respectful lad of considerable charm. The ‘boss’ appeared to be Ibrahim, and there were, as always, a crowd of hangers-on and viewers. The work took much of three hours and Jahz’s bill for labour was two pounds! Ocean, Plymouth, BMW price would have been over one hundred times that, plus VAT!
Mind you, the bike still coughed and cut out for a second now and again as I motored towards the capital, so the problem is not actually solved, despite the bits of dirt, the dust and the lump of fluff that rinsed out of the tank. I found, however, that if I keep my speed between 60 to 65kph, the engine runs fine. So I guess it’s just a slower ride home for now.
Funny how relaxed I feel here, after the angst of last week in Rwanda. There’s a vitality about this madness; everyone greets me with a smile; they laugh at the chaos; they seem to be content with one another, friendly, cheerful, positive. This is a fun country. I’m sitting now in a very basic outdoor bar beside a junction between the main Entebbe road with its dense traffic, and the turn off onto the earth lanes to the urban hills where the guest house is, just two hundred yards up a pitted dirt track. Lads play pool under a tin shelter behind me; multitudes of boda-boda boys sit at the junction, all calling to me as I pass, with cheerful greetings, in the hope of a hire. “Oh, I’ve been on a piki-piki all day! I certainly don’t want to sit on yours!” Every meal in East Africa is taken to the sound of endless TV: either wall to wall tabloid (generally African) 24 hour news (who needs it?) or, more commonly, absolutely perpetual, ceaseless football games – breakfast to dinner, and doubtless beyond. It’s certainly the one thing that virtually every African (man) knows about Britain: our biggest world export, beyond doubt.
So far, the road has been reasonable. The worst, most aggressive of drivers are those of the huge racing international bus companies, for they give no consideration to meagre boda-bodas, and, of course, I am classified as a boda-boda, even though I go so much faster. Perhaps, I have decided, it’s just best to forget my pride and BE a boda-boda! It’s probably safer than trying to insist on my rights as a fellow road user – at least until I get out of Uganda. Riding here, especially on this East African Highway that flies across Uganda from Rwanda and even Congo all the way to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast, and brings all the goods and fuel for the landlocked interior from the ports, you really DO need eyes in the back of your head, as well as in front and all around. It’s tiring, coping with traffic of this danger. Last year, I said, never again. And here I am, courtesy of the Ethiopian embassy, Nairobi, here again.
But there is a lively, immediate attraction about this frenetic Kampala. And the beer in this basic neighbourhood bar is the cheapest yet – 70 pence a half litre. Gosh, the Church House is going to be a shock! Five times a shock. I feel so much more involved and positive again. The journey is working again.
DAY 94 WEDNESDAY 21st FEBRUARY 2018. KAMPALA, UGANDA
Kampala, I found last year, is the best place in these countries for dealing with repairs and parts for Japanese bikes, so most of today was spent in just that. There’s a whole area of the city that is devoted to these activities, and it’s at the top of the crazy main Entebbe road, eight kilometres down which I am staying. Getting there through the mad traffic was interesting, and quite fun, since I can flaunt every traffic regulation, and am probably a better; certainly more observant rider than most others in these countries.
My rear tyre has carried me 12,000 kilometres (7500 miles) and still would have taken me another three or four, but I know that replacements are very rare to find outside Kampala, and I knew exactly where to go – so much so that the boys in the incredibly ragged workshop remembered me from last year. Later, I went to the nearby petrol station, right on the Clock Tower roundabout, one of the craziest places in the city, to check the pressure – since no worker has any gauge; they just guess. “So you’ve fitted another tyre!” exclaimed the man at the air pressure machine. “How was the one you bought last year?” Amazing! But I guess mzungus on piki-pikis are rare and memorable. A new tyre cost £51 and £1 to the lad for fitting it, a horrible task with new trail tyres. Then I went looking for advice about the engine cutting out under power. For this I went to the Japanese specialists, where an incredible array of machines in all stages of dereliction stand beside the heaving traffic on the mud of the roadsides.
Edward, a small middle aged mechanic with half a container as workshop, reckoned that the coil was probably beginning to fail; or the control unit under the seat that distributes the signals for the spark. Of course, I won’t know until I have been on the road some time tomorrow, if the two second hand replacements solve my problem! For £70 he replaced both with ones stripped from other machines. I kept the old ones as insurance… Well, the Mosquito is still running, so I must hope that his diagnosis was correct. I’d arrived at roughly the same conclusion myself, but of course no one has the equipment to run tests on any of these components, so replacement and hope are the only options.
Before I left the first seedy and squalid workshop – a shower had loosened the mud and oil of the workspace floor by then – the used tyre was hanging on the door for resale! Nothing gets thrown away if there’s the vaguest chance of making some money from it. My old tyre, complete with a small cut in the outer wall, and having motored 12,000 hard kilometres, will end up on another machine in due course. I was happy to donate it.
All this took most of my travelling day. By the time the work was finished, about three, I couldn’t face struggling through more traffic; not even to test the bike down the Entebbe road, now full of crawling traffic and weaving boda-bodas. I’m sitting not far from it now, at seven o’clock, and it is still crowded and creeping along. Instead, I found a bakery at the end of the street where the guest house is situated and ate cake for pretty much the first time since that cafe north of Mount Kenya; not quite up to Pat Mills’ standard of rich fruit cake, but not a bad alternative for East Africa at all. With freshly pressed mango and passion juices, it’s a discovery for breakfast tomorrow.
I’m disappointed this evening to find that about £150 or £160 appears to have been filched from my bags at some point in the last eight days. I keep a selection of smaller denomination notes: £10, £20, $10 and so forth, in a zipped bag that contains all my small paper items and bits and pieces, well down in my left hand pannier bag. I recollect getting out about £100 shortly before reaching the Rwanda border, and think I remember putting them back later that day. Oh well, on the whole, my last six winters of travelling have been astonishingly crime free – a pair of headphones and this cash. I’m more disappointed that someone I have trusted in a hotel in which I have stayed has given way to opportunity to rifle in my luggage. Oddly, some notes are left, which suggests just a quick delve, rather than a premeditated theft. I hope it will support a good cause at least. Pity, though… It’s not as if I stay in the sort of dives and brothels in which I used to lodge! Oh well, I am comfortable in the knowledge that they definitely need it more than me, at least. Maybe I should consider it a charitable donation.
Tomorrow I must gird up my loins and face the most frightening road in Africa, in my opinion. Happily, I have a quiet place to sleep in preparation. It’s only fifty miles, but it terrified me last year. Sadly, it’s also unavoidable.
DAY 95 THURSDAY 22nd FEBRUARY 2018. KAMPALA, UGANDA
A personal disaster struck a couple of hours ago as I ate a rather good chicken pie from the excellent bakery at the end of the street. With a mighty cracking noise, my three front teeth (some of the few I have left…), that are an extremely expensive bridge and crown mechanism (£1000 from a rip-off dental clinic in Totnes), came loose and now wobbles in an unsightly fashion, just when I was congratulating myself on getting through a complete African journey without any tooth problems – for my teeth are my weakest point, unfortunately. I was rather grateful to the dentist who insisted that he pulled two more of my few remaining teeth a week before I flew to Ghana, despite his lack of sensitivity in telling me how his Polish grandmother lived a full life into her 90s with only two teeth. Thanks to his advice I have had a rare four months without any gum infections. Now I am on a liquid diet and must find a dentist to patch me up – if that’s possible. Fresh fruit juice and beer for supper tonight.
Waking to a bright sunny morning after ten hours of sleep, I decided to stay another night in this pleasant guest house and visit the big city. I may never come this way again (said that last year) so I may as well experience Kampala for a day. I left the Mosquito behind and flagged down a city-bound matatu at the end of the road and bounced through the morning traffic chaos, letting someone else do the driving. It meant I could just wear my shorts and tee shirt and carry all I needed in my pockets: a good sense of freedom.
I’ve visited more than twenty African capitals and many more African cities, but Kampala is in a class all of its own for sheer, utter, mad chaos. This is a warning of what happens when you have traffic anarchy and a ballooning population; when control just breaks down and turmoil and disorder take over. It’s unlike any city I ever knew, is Kampala. There is no public infrastructure; no city run public transport, just a million (and I doubt I exaggerate) uncontrolled boda-bodas fighting for business and road space with hundreds of thousands of minibus matatus – every one of them making up their own traffic rules and wanting to get their passengers to their destinations first, so they can refill and make more money, for matatus make money by the numbers of people they carry in a day. Then of course, there are pedestrians, fighting in their millions to get from place to place in a city made for half the number, and with broken pavements that are made largely impassible by shop wares flowing out over the pavement; squatting beggars of every description – more than I have seen in any other African city; itinerant salespeople spreading their wares across the pavements, and themselves with them, babies too. There are signs that protrude, cars that park wherever they can, including the walkways and pavements, and the million boda-bodas clogging every junction and space as they await passengers. It’s unbelievable if you haven’t seen it for yourself. Every other African city – even Accra – is sedate by comparison. Everyone exists by trying to sell something to everyone else; this is informal employment taken to an extreme, be they street traders, boda-boda boys or shopkeepers.
The saving grace of all this total shambles and confusion is that those involved are Ugandans, one of the friendliest races on earth. Without that, a day like this would have been unadulterated hell and horror. As it was, it was eye opening and revealing, but calmly acceptable as everyone left me to myself, was respectful and returned any smile or eye contact happily. Sometimes it was fun to exchange a wry gestural comment on it all with a look or a shrug and a complicit smile across the crowd. At one point, I climbed to an upper storey of an arcade that seemed devoted to selling dresses, displayed on hundreds of cheap plastic mannequins of an odd fawn colour common here; heads sellotaped to bodies; sometimes heads formed more of sellotape than plastic, where they had suffered terrible plastic facial injuries – or merely collapsed down the stairs that they lined like a line of dominoes perhaps. These places must be the most awful fire hazards imaginable, boxes, clutter and goods piled on every surface, constricting every doorway and stairway with, doubtless, no fire codes or sufficient exits and violently flammable cheap synthetic clothes from Chinese production lines. I went up to look down on the chaos at the crossroad below and stood there thanking my good fortune that I might never see this mess again.
Crossing the roads as a pedestrian is hard, until I realised that I just had to force my way. Oddly, it worked so much easier. With an eye glaring at drivers, the best is just to exercise your right to cross. I got many a glare and a few challenging smiles, but I got across each road safely. And I walked many hot miles; I couldn’t countenance a boda-boda ride: I’ve watched too may riders for that. I walked out to the Uganda Museum, feeling duty bound as a tourist to make the effort. Oh dear… The Uganda Museum was started in 1902, the first colonial collection in Africa, set up in a building in Entebbe, the colonial capital. It’s in its third home now, built in the sixties – probably the last time a shilling was spent on displays, its ancient dark show cases flyblown and faded; its dioramas of moulting animals on dusty plains unlit, bakelite bulb holders dangling empty on twisted flex behind dirty glass; lino tiles curling on the floors; dust covered fossils lifeless and boring; a fine collection of cracking musical instruments set amongst old faded black and white photos of colonial era natives in loin cloths; frequent empty cases filled only with dust and cobwebs. The only saving graces: Alice and Isaac, with both of whom I enjoyed conversations: Alice, who played a one-stringed traditional instrument in a faded gallery and wanted advice about her daughter; should she study art and design or industrial design, and what was the difference? and Isaac, from Kisoro, who spent his childhood exploring the regions in which I was riding last week. He studied literature and is now employed with the Uganda National Library, in the museum compound. With Isaac I had a jocular conversation about some of the books he was selling from a stall. One was the president, Yoseri Museveni’s autobiography, ‘Sowing the mustard seed’ and another a satirical take off, ‘Unsowing the mustard seed’ by a flippant critic. We spoke of the hope that the deposition of Mugabe has given Africans for deposing their own well seated antique dictators and aspiring life presidents. It’s so good to meet cultured, intellectual Africans and be able to share our common language.
With my wobbly front set, I am sitting in the same rough and ready beer bar on a threadbare grass embankment at the side of the local dirt road that must go to some expensive suburban housing, to judge by the quality of car that uses the road – and the thriving bakery, certainly a cut above any other I’ve seen, and probably existing by catering to slightly richer, discerning customers. There’s a power cut – not uncommon – and the pool players play by torchlight and I sit beneath the stars and dust-covered trees, blinded by the light of my iPad. It’s cool now. I’ll soon have to retreat to my bedroom, where a sheet is sufficient covering thank goodness, for I would be pressed to a slither by the immensely heavy Chinese, inch thick blanket supplied: ‘100% synthetic’ as the label proudly displays. It weighs more than a carpet, with its florid whirls and whorls of autumn leaves.
I hope I can find a dentist in the morning. I’ll be hungry if I don’t! I can’t cough or yawn for fear of the loosely swinging three front teeth… If I am very lucky, maybe it’s just the glue that’s come unstuck. Probably payment for that cake yesterday!
Time to drink up and go. I guess the power-out covers my guest house, in which case, it’s straight to bed at 8.30 again.
DAY 96 FRIDAY 23rd FEBRUARY 2018. KAMPALA, UGANDA
I’ve lost it tonight: my sense of humour, my patience and my travel head. I’m not even sure I can write tonight; maybe I’ll have to complete in the morning.
What a day; what a ******* day. All I want right now, is to get out of this city and never see it again. It’s a revelation of what Armageddon might well be, when it comes: a city designed for a third the number of inhabitants with very little infrastructure – and what there is, provided fifty years ago when the country’s population – and remember, this is one of the fastest growing nations on earth with terrifying statistics – was many times smaller. This is now a city of millions; millions of individuals who know no laws or regulations; whose country has just been rated the 30th most corrupt in the world (I shall avoid the other 29! They start with Somalia and South Sudan, by the way); people who have small resources and of whom 7 out of 10 drop out of school by Senior Four class and 9 out of 10 before A levels.
Hell on earth would be to be condemned to live in Kampala: a life sentence. Nairobi rises consistently in my estimation… It just took me a little over an hour and a half – starting at 8.30 in the evening – to travel a bit more than six miles in chaotic traffic that knows no laws. Imagine having to do that six days a week, as many of those around me in the packed matatu must do. It’s a nightmare vision of modern life, Kampala: of what modern life can degenerate into. How it makes me appreciate Harberton.
The millions of small, smelly Chinese boda-boda bikes are one of the main causes of this horror. They know no restriction: using any means to get their passengers through the mess. They ride on what pavements there are; they ride up the wrong carriage ways; they weave in and out of the belching matatus, themselves in their hundreds of thousands in the gridlock; they ride dangerously and recklessly. There must be hospital wards filled with the injured, for no one has any protection, especially the passengers. No one, or very few, I hazard, are insured in any meaningful way – and health provision here is largely private. Moving about this city is the most stressful I have witnessed. There is, of course, no provision for crossing roads as a pedestrian, so people have to weave between jostling cars and weaving bodas. Crossing the main Kampala to Entebbe road has to be seen to be believed: women with babies on their backs having to run dangerously across two and a half lanes of racing – or, if they are lucky, stationary, traffic – to reach the median and clamber over the steel crash barriers to chance the other two and a half lanes. Now and again everything stops while a passing dignitary is escorted by wailing police sirens in convoy home for his supper, followed by a line of chancers, joining the convoy with their hazard lights flashing too. It is ghastly beyond description and unimaginable as you sit there and read this. If you haven’t SEEN it, you have NO idea… And at night the monstrous mayhem is enhanced, for there are virtually no street lights, and the pavements, such as they are, abound with traps and hazards, unseeable with dazzling boda-boda lights and deep shadows behind cars parked on the pavements. There are hidden steps and steep slopes; uncovered manholes; long forgotten road works, started but never filled in; beggars – quite a lot of them professional rings employed by unscrupulous landlords in exchange for basic accommodation; traders with their wares still sprawled on the broken pavements; drunks and the destitute asleep ; a baby sitting alone in the middle of a dark pavement, unheeded; air-time salespeople for the many mobile services, with bright umbrellas blocking progress; changes of level; rubbish and garbage; broken bricks and mud; the million boda-bodas with their shouting, hooting riders vying for passengers; derelict lamp standards that once, in better, kinder days, illumined streets with a quarter of the people and a tenth of the vehicular traffic. In my considerable travels, I have yet to see the equal of Kampala. I want to leave. I don’t want to come back. Seeing is believing, and believing is to avoid. I now have an extreme against which to measure all other cities. Enough is enough.
I try to believe that every travelling experience should be met with interest and become part of the travel story. It’s difficult to maintain that when the whole day, from 10.30 until 7.30 was spent in a dentist’s waiting room, hungry and a bit anxious. There’s an American mzungu living at the guest house here: he’s been in Uganda three and a half years, married now with a small child. “Have you been here long enough to require a dentist?” I asked him yesterday. He sent me to a Dr Mawano in the city centre. It’s quite an upmarket dental practice, and made me realise how fortunate it was that my dental mishap happened here in the capital: out in the provinces I’d have had no chance to find a half-decent dentist to help.
It was three hours (regaled as always by TV – nature documentaries at least – as I tried to read my book. Why is it that people are so terrified of silence now?) before I was seen by Ronata, a pretty, cheerful young dentist. She clucked and commiserated and said after a few moments, “Well, these teeth aren’t yours any more!” Two teeth held the front bridge, both crowned long ago – actually, fifty years ago! I recollect really wanting to go to school with the ground-down stumps, but the dentist insisted on putting temporary crowns. The teeth had discoloured thanks to Tetracycline, the first wonder antibiotic that all we children of the fifties were fed for all our illnesses. The left anchor was loose from bone loss (my problem) and the right one had shattered asunder, breaking right in half with that chicken pie. Ronata fetched her senior partner, Dr Mawano, who confirmed that there was no saving the bridge and talked of implants, bone grafts and so forth. When I explained that I was a passing tourist, he thought they could make me a plate with the three teeth by five o’clock! That, it seemed to me, was service. The total cost would be £95: £4 for the inspection, £10 for the extraction, a £20 supplement for the haste at which the plate would be made and £60 odd, for the plate.
Ronata drew the wobbly tooth, still with half-attached £1000 bridge, smoothed off the broken end of the other, and I went to walk about town for an hour and a half, coming back at five. But the work wasn’t finished until 7.30 – astonishingly, the practice still open and Dr Mawano still working – when I walked away – now in the perilous dark – with a mouth seemingly full of plastic and a lisp, and I admit, a certain degree of misery, ameliorated only by the fact that the problem was solved so easily in a day. Well, not solved but postponed to expensive dentistry at home…
I picked up a soft meal of pasta and juice in an overpriced place in the city centre, new teeth feeling huge and cumbersome, like eating with a big boiled sweet in my mouth and, against my better judgement, took a boda-boda to the matatu station for the Entebbe road. It was now 8.15 and thousands were still trying to get home from the city, thousands. At last I found a matatu and clambered into the front seat, mouth full of plastic and by now getting short tempered. It then took a little more than one and a half hours to travel about six miles. I could walk at that speed – but there are no pavements. Instead, I had to suffer and mope my way through those millions of scrambling, thrusting vehicles down the dark road lined with millions of people walking in the mess; still trading their goods; cooking snacks; arguing, bargaining, shouting and conversing. All about me was chaos and the matatu was hot and cramped. At last I was able to fall out at the end of the dirt road to the expensive suburbs and bought a cup of fresh mango juice at the good bakery.
Imagine my frustration, to the point of shouting obscenities and close to tears of anger by now, when I fell over on the pitch dark dirt road, slipping into a dust-filled drainage runnel caused by the total lack of public infrastructure on this suburban track to expensive homes. My juice spilled over my hand and I slung the paper cup into the bushes – the first time I have thrown a piece of trash in decades in a public place. What difference would my paper cup make to this utter shambles, this mess, this chaos, this uncontrolled bedlam? Shouting vulgarities into the night, I picked myself up and slithered and slipped the last unlit rutted yards to the guest house. I couldn’t even be bothered to get a beer. It was now 10.15 at night, long after my bedtime, especially tonight, at the end of a totally frustrating, rather miserable day on which my false teeth came another step closer: I think I now have fifteen and a half of my original complement of 32 teeth. But I suppose the greatest quality of we humans is adaptability. Perhaps I’ll get used to the mouthful of slightly loose plastic, although right now it feels unlikely.
DAY 97. FRIDAY 24th FEBRUARY 2018. JINJA, UGANDA
Travelling alone I sometimes create irrational demons. It’s good to face those demons.
The road from Kampala to Jinja was the most frightening stretch of my 7000 kilometre ride last year. For weeks now, since the day I decided to return to Uganda, I have inspected my map to invent a way to avoid those fifty dreaded miles, but there really isn’t any sensible detour.
And you know what? It wasn’t as bad as my imagination – although, reading this, you can have NO conception of the first twenty miles or of the pandemonium of the traffic of Kampala and its outskirts, through which I was forced to fight my way. I found a word that I like: mobocracy, which as you might imagine, means rule by the mob. That’s Kampala. Fortunately, my Mosquito has twice the engine power of virtually every other bike, of which the vast majority are boda-bodas, and I probably have a hundred times the experience and training (‘training’, what’s THAT in Uganda?) than any of them. I am more aware of what’s around me on the road than any of them. Otherwise I would still be in Kampala, battling with the traffic. Red lights are just a decoration so far as the bodas are concerned, so is traffic flow. If you can squeeze through a gap, ride over the pavement or central reservation, through a petrol station, over a roundabout – you do it. As I stood waiting for the lights to change (quaint behaviour) I did observe a small initiative called ‘Safe Boda’, and a boda rider waiting beside me, with helmet and tabard advertising his training.
The road from Kampala to Jinja is the most used in the country. It carries an average (I saw this in yesterday’s newspaper that I read from cover to cover in the dentists’ waiting room – and very boring it was too), carries an average of 270,000 passengers a day. And it’s a single carriageway almost all of the way; broken and worn. It carries most of the buses, straining articulated lorries and petrol tankers in the country, and those to Rwanda, grinding up long hills at twenty miles an hour with vast jams stretching miles behind them; matatus weaving in and out dangerously; overtaking that has to be seen to be believed and passing through crowded towns filled with blockages and jostling taxi matatus. It requires total concentration, to know what’s in front; what’s following and what might suddenly, without warning, pull out and overtake head-on. By the time I arrived in Jinja, despite the short journey – only sixty miles today – I was well ready to stop, and gently dozed off over a book for an hour on my bed. Maybe the last couple fo days have been more stressful than I thought, for I slept well and long each night in that pleasant guest house on the Entebbe road, except maybe, for the preoccupation with my bloody teeth!
Jinja’s a pleasant town, larger than it seems from the central part. It sits at the so called ‘source of the Nile’ and I am sitting writing, with a beer, in a threadbare garden overlooking the great river as it starts its journey down to Egypt and the Mediterranean. It’s astonishing to think that the water that slides past me here, will flow for two and half thousand miles, down to the skirts of Europe and the Middle East. I wonder how long it takes to get there, these molecules that float by, quite fast as it flows out of the great inland sea of Lake Victoria a half mile to my left, about to pass through the turbines of the dam that blew away the natural sight of Rippon Falls a few decades back? The river’s about thirty feet below me and maybe 400 yards wide here. It will pass through the big swampy inland lakes of Uganda, over the Karuma Falls that I crossed three weeks ago; on down to Lake Albert over the impressive Murchison Falls; changing names from the Victoria Nile to the Albert Nile and so to the White Nile for its journey through Sudan and Egypt.
Last year I found a decent small hotel and negotiated within my budget, so I returned this afternoon and was recognised by the staff. I suppose it’s not SO surprising really: after all, how many white haired mzungus pass through on motorbikes? I got the same room for the same price – cheaper this year as the exchange rate has changed in my favour (and with Brexit, there can’t be many countries where THAT is still the case…).
The main street of Jinja is the attraction for me, although for most mzungus it’s the ‘adventure tourism’ – all the bungee jumping, white water rafting, and organised safaris – that makes this perhaps the tourism centre of the country. Main Street is a fadingly elegant reminder of Asian colonial days, with long arcaded shop units and some fine Indian influenced African architecture, and a few large Indian temples. After Idi Amin’s terror was over, Uganda tried to attract back the Asians, the backbone of their urban economies, and in Jinja many seem to have returned and taken back their possessions. There’s a distinct Asian influence. It has many touristic shops, but Uganda’s – well, East Africa’s – craft scene is disappointing. All shops, the length and breadth of Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda stock just about the same items: almost nothing reflects any local character or local source. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that quite a lot of the ‘African’ artefacts are now mass produced in China, where labour is EVEN cheaper than here. Much of it is produced with no heart; obviously mass-produced by an uncaring process that shows very little talent or imagination. It’s largely derivative and badly finished. But I had a lovely conversation with delightful Stella for half an hour in a tourist trinket shop: an educated woman with considerable charm, I enjoyed the fact that we share a language with such facility. The African fabric iPad cover I bought for a couple of pounds will remind me of Stella. We mutually agreed that we had cheered one another’s day!
I’m persevering with the teeth! They wobble and clatter if I eat with them, and the temptation is to remove the plate for supper (in frustration, I bloody did!). I’m still philosophically divided on old age. I love travelling as an older person: so much more fun. I threaten no one, so can be as cheeky and charming as I like to anyone: after all, I am just an old muzee, uncle, daddy, baba, old man. I am generally respected for my age in Africa. It astonishes people that such an ‘old’ bloke is riding a piki-piki around their countries. By this time of life, I don’t feel the need to prove anything, to impress, to demand status, to seek popularity. If people don’t like the way I am, so long as I am not abusing or affecting them adversely, then it’s their problem, not mine! I can be uncompromising about that now. But… my teeth fall out and I DO get more weary from my efforts than I used to. Even I have to admit that: having a bit of a doze when I arrived in Jinja… Still, there’s life in the old dog yet. I have achieved the age range – plus – of two percent of the people of Uganda. TWO percent of them make it to 65.
A most interesting email just came in from Rico, in response to reading my complaints of the begging in Rwanda, of which I will copy the relevant part verbatim:
‘I feel that I have to come to the defence of the Rwandese children. I believe that 75 out of 100 times a kid was calling Money to you (with or without the hand held up) this was NOT asking for money, but simply greeting you. They don’t actually say ‘money’, but ‘Mo neh’.
This was explained to me across Lake Kivu in Congo. I also complained about the begging habit, but I was told by a local staff member, that it was in fact a friendly greeting. I was also told that because the two ‘words’ sound so similar, some (white) people in the more populated regions, started to respond to the greeting by giving money or other small presents… As children learn quick, and even parents take over habits that bear ‘fruit’ this is now very often (indeed) a request for ‘something’. Too bad, but we can only blame our own ‘sort’.’
Interesting. I hope he is correct in this as I was disappointed by the insistent ‘begging’. Mind you, “Give me money!”, heard so frequently, is pretty unambiguous.
Sipi tomorrow. It’s a bit like going home, having these friendly, generous ‘bases’ to which I keep returning: Sipi, Kessup and chiefly of course, Kitale.
DAY 85 MONDAY 12th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
The weather is worrying me. Admittedly, I am fairly high up amongst mountains, but motorbike tours in rain don’t have much attraction. My day has been rather unfocussed, starting with wet riding clothes from yesterday and ending with more damp clothes after I was caught by a very heavy shower somewhere up the valley. I have to make decisions about the direction of my journey.
As I write, in the White Horse Inn hotel bar, with a fellow lighting the fire beside me, the rain hammers on the roofs above and the temperature has dropped dramatically. I managed to get enough power from the hotel internet to glance at the weather from here on: thunderstorms and showers throughout Rwanda and much of Uganda for the coming couple of weeks. That doesn’t bode well; nor do the other forecasts around. I may have to remain flexible. Ironically, Ethiopia seems to be basking in sunshine.
And there you see my problem. I had planned a tour of Ethiopia, and find myself repeating a good deal of last year’s journey, with a month still to go. How do I make it novel? Or do I just accept the consequence of the Ethiopian embassy decision and meander a bit aimlessly, hoping for occasional days like yesterday, with inspiring experiences occurring now and again? But a ride like that of yesterday would be unadulterated hell on a dismal wet day, with the dirt tracks turning to grease and slipperiness. Why, today, I set off to ride the lakeside trail, but turned back because I couldn’t trust the weather…
Suddenly, there was a line of rain across my road, after I had turned to scurry back to Kabale. I quickly spied out an overhanging veranda on a roadside building and skidded into an already wet muddy yard and jumped quickly from the bike. The rain was cascading down; I was instantly wet, just from a couple of hundred yards of riding. When it rains, here in equatorial Africa, it pours. Within minutes my shelter was splashing and the sudden wind billowing giant raindrops onto me. I scuttled for an open door nearby. It opened into a small, local drinking bar. Not a bad choice, I suppose, for shelter: at least they were used to strangers barging in. An elderly woman sheltered on the end of a bench and half a dozen men sat on the low forms in front of the mesh-covered bar. The bargirl kindly offered me a Chinese plastic chair. No one seemed to speak English: it’s sometimes the way in less educated hamlets, but they all laughed at my predicament and appeared sympathetic. I wish I could understand the conversations that take place at such times! What are they saying about the mzungu who has just blown in? How do they look at me? What are the jokes? How I wish I could have a babelfish – the ‘Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Universe’ translation device that sat in the ear and gave simultaneous translation in any language of the universe. I miss so much. But it’s also fun to be the centre of these obviously kindly comments and observations, and the not-unkind butt of their jokes. They cheerfully waved me off, having watched the performance of my donning waterproofs with the greatest curiosity. I may have been the most exciting thing to happen in that crude drinking bar all day.
If I have to be stuck in the rain, at least the White Horse Inn is comfortable and friendly; so much better than so many of the dumps in which I have had to hole up on past journeys. Lovely Angela, who prepares my room, says she hopes I will stay a month! I am friendly, she says, and she gets bored with her work. She’d like to go back to study, but her family is poor, although she only has two siblings – considerable restraint in Uganda. She comes from Kumi, a small town I passed through a couple of weeks ago – I remember using an ATM at a small branch bank as I passed through. Oddly enough, she worked for a couple of years in the People’s Guest House in Soroti, the very hotel in which I stayed on the first of the month. Angela is cheerful and bright and has a wide, prettily shaped mouth and the whitest teeth, with a central gap (common in Africa) in the top gleaming row, unusually reflected in the lower teeth too. She’s a beauty, with a warm, light-hearted manner to match. I hadn’t even unlocked my room on arrival before I had requested her photo!
DAY 86 TUESDAY 13th FEBRUARY 2017. GISENYI, RWANDA
So to Rwanda again. I didn’t expect that when I set off over twelve weeks ago. I thought that about now I’d be in northern Ethiopia. Oh well, such is the travelling life… Well, I have the visa for Rwanda; the Mosquito requires no more papers, except £20 for insurance, and, well, it is here. And now, so am I.
I was in Gisenyi just over a year ago, renting the same bed in the same guest house; so there was no reason to look further, for I did my research, such as it is when I look for a place to stay, last year already. I have a tiny room but, as I told Sandrine, the receptionist who showed me the room, I don’t intend to hold a dance so there’s absolutely no reason to pay £36 for the room next door, when this one is £14! It includes a three-quarter bed, a compact shower and lavatory corner and a delightful triangular window. I noted last year that the breakfast was good.
It was with some despondency that I set off this morning: fog filled the hotel gardens and it was pretty chilly – not on February-in-Britain levels, but requiring-a-jersey level, you understand. As the sun eventually beat its way through the thick cloud and mists, everything took on a bit more colour. Africa without sun is like a portrait without a smile: dull and lifeless. Watching the skies anxiously, I rode west into the hills on that most lovely of roads over to Kisoro, in the farthest corner of Uganda. Should I just give up and turn back towards Kampala and Kenya, where I could be surer that I wasn’t in for a rainswept continuation of my safari, or should I carry on and see what happened, knowing I can turn round at any time and head for sun and dry skies? Well, I am nothing if not obstinate, I acknowledge. I hate to be beaten – so I rode on, an eye on the dense clouds and the dim slaty blue beyond the hills.
Breasting the highest ridge, I looked down into the valley where Kisoro spreads at the foot of the great volcanoes, and saw patchy sunshine. The clouds rolled back, except for wraiths clinging to the tops of the high volcanoes. The air warmed up such that I could remove my jersey, and my spirits lifted: I was going to another country – even if it’s one that doesn’t hold a lot of novelty any more. Rwanda is a beautiful country, high, mountainous and lovely, although it doesn’t have the attraction of novelty that it had a year ago. Doubtless, I will find interest and things to see and do – and it does have the best beer in East Africa! Turbo King, a sweetish, dark beer.
Lake Kivu swishes noisily before me, a big thunderstorm having recently passed over, without dropping rain on Gisenyi, but dramatic clouds and slashes of rain reveal only glimpses of the Congo shore, twenty miles away as the sun goes down. I’m sitting in a beach bar, waiting for a fish jambalaya and drinking my Turbo King. I remained dry all day and have had a gentle, easy day. I’m relaxed, despite my despondent start. I’ll make the most of it.
The lake beside which I am calmly sitting (and my room’s only fifty yards from the shore) is sitting on an atomic bomb quantity of methane. It actually could blow – but then the volcanoes aren’t dormant, either. One of them blasted Goma, the Congolese town contiguous with Gisenyi to kingdom come only fifteen years ago. Various mysterious disasters occurred in Cameroon, some years ago, that turned out to be methane leaks. This lake has a vast reserve of the killer gas, vented by the volcanic region. Happily, someone realised that methane – carefully extracted – could generate electricity. I’m looking out now at the well-head. I hope it remains under control for the next forty eight hours!
It’s dark now, the sun creating a brief mauve light-show in the thunderclouds. The far shore is a deep silhouette and the minor waves still noisily wash on the beach below my table. The fish jambalaya was probably the best dish I’ve eaten in the past three months: a delicious mixture of fresh fish – presumably from the lake beside me – fruit and a sort of sweet curry with coconut flavour. I might stay another day and come back again!
The border crossing is simple: my visa, bought long ago in Nairobi airport, is valid for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. All I have to remember is to cross over and drive on the right side of the road; to set my clock back and hour to Central African time and to be aware that far less people speak English – in this once Belgian colony (were there any worse colonisers?). But I think that French is being quietly discouraged in favour of English, now the world language. But for many older people, English is perhaps the third language.
Soon away from the border, having found Francis, from the national tourist office, to get maps and pamphlets – I remembered that last year I was met at immigration by a tourist officer – Marachal – the first time in my considerable travels that I have EVER been welcomed at an international border by officials from the tourist authority, keen as mustard to promote tourism in their country – soon away, I was on a narrow road through a succession of virtually continuous small villages, the roads lined – as always in Rwanda – by walking people. Every child waved and gesticulated at the mzungu. So did many of the adults. Yet this is a road from an international border, where you will see more white men than anywhere else. Boda-bodas are much rarer and well regulated in this organised country: helmets for riders and passengers, often a bucket-like helmet balanced on intricate hair weaves. There are, however, bicycles everywhere, most used as freight transport. How can anyone pedal or push such vastly loaded machines on these hills? It’s harvest season and bicycles are dwarfed by enormous sacks of carrots and potatoes, and at the roadsides, men pack intricate loads, the carrots towering in rolls about five feet high, contained by sacks and straps. A cyclist can take three of these weighty sacks on his carrier. I saw two cyclists carrying two 50 gallon oil drums each, balanced apparently precariously on their carriers.
I forget how accustomed I become, over the weeks, to the grot and filth of Africa – until I enter its cleanest country. Rwanda has made efforts that should shame my homeland in cleaning up its environment. One of the first to outlaw plastic bags, it has encouraged its population to the most extraordinary levels of cleanliness. It’s cleaner than any other country I have visited – including Switzerland! Once a month, everyone – everyone – must perform three hours of public service on Saturday morning, mainly used in cleaning up around their homes and villages. How much we filthy British could learn – if our cultural arrogance and sense of entitlement allowed us…
The White Horse Inn actually seemed sorry to see me leave, but that’s the difference between a good hotel and the usual grim lodgings I have favoured all these years. Gardeners pushing hand mowers over the acres of lawns; elderly women raking; numerous attentive breakfast waiters who assumed I was incapable of pouring my own coffee from the pot; the accountant in her log wood booth; the receptionist behind his half-tree counter; even Lillian, the loomingly efficient manager – they all knew my name and expressed their hope to see me again. Very professional, rather more than I am used to! I spent five nights, had five dinners and I think ten beers. My bill was £115: one night in a shitty, faceless, snob-named chain ‘hotel’ in America.
No one, no banks or forex bureaux wants Sterling here. I couldn’t remember if I had included Rwanda on my list of countries in which I might use my credit card when I told the bank; fortunately, it turned out I had, as no one would accept my cash. Dollars or Euros welcome; Pounds? No interest. This will be another inconvenience after disastrous Brexit, when the pound becomes a ‘soft’ unreliable currency of a third world nation…
That one hour time change is disturbing me. It’s only 7.45 Rwanda-time, and I am yawning. 8.45 body-time. About now, at home, I’d probably just be going out for a pint, not heading to bed.
DAY 87 WEDNESDAY 14th FEBRUARY 2017. GISENYI, RWANDA
Sometimes it’s good to leave the bike and take to my feet for a few hours. I have walked until my feet are sore – which may be because I should have relegated this pair of shoes to work shoes BEFORE I started out, rather than after, but I am too mean, and I couldn’t bear the idea of bringing new shoes to my African travels. Haha! What a cheap idiot?
Gisenyi town continues almost directly into Goma, in the Congo, separated by a few fences and walls and a large ‘one-stop’ border post: the East African initiative that combines both sides of the border formalities efficiently into a single location. I walked there because Rico had heard of people crossing to Goma for the day from Gisenyi, and I liked that idea. But of course, there’s a wrinkle… Yes, I was welcome to go to Goma for the day, but if I did, my visa was invalid as soon as I leave the East African Community: Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. I could go, but I’d have to buy a new visa to come back. “You go, your visa expire!” Well, at US$100, it wasn’t worth it, for a cup of coffee in Congo! Nice idea… It does make we wonder how I got away with going back through Tanzania last year, for it didn’t join the agreement and I should have had to buy a new visa to get back into Kenya. Oh well, I didn’t – although there was a bit of flak as I went back into Uganda afterwards, something about there being no stamp in my passport… But I seemed to get away with it. I remember some fast talking and a lot of smiling at the Uganda border.
So it’s been a slow day, pounding the streets of this rather well maintained town that feels a bit like an Italian Lakes town, or somewhere a bit French, to the extent that it has a tree-lined, lakeside beach avenue actually called a corniche. The town is well kept, has pavements, has many women sweeping the leaves and dead blossoms from the streets, is tidy – and, ultimately, rather boring. The people, as I found last year, are basically friendly, somewhat reserved, and never initiate contact – unless they intend to try their luck, with the upturned palm and ‘give me money’. This is a habit here; unlike in Uganda and Kenya, where so few people ask that it is notable when they do. Here it’s a reflex on seeing a white skin. Funny, how this is endemic in the French speaking ex-colonies. A young man walked a mile with me this evening. I suspected, as soon as he joined me, that it would end up in some proposal that I help him: it did. He has to pay fees ‘tomorrow’ and ‘didn’t know how he could do it…’ Unsympathetically, nor did I, I’m afraid. This trait of Rwandans irritates me.
My day began rather early. Sandrine was tapping at my door at seven. It seemed breakfast was ready – in the middle of the night. Well, it WAS a good breakfast, with plenty of fresh tropical fruit, a Spanish omelette and the usual awful white sheets of sweet bread. The coffee was good and I took it sitting on a wooden chair in the garden, surrounded by flowering roses, hibiscus and other bright flowers, including a poinsettia tree – not the Christmas pot plant that dies in January: but a magnificent tree. The hedges and shrubs were filled with noisy, brilliantly plumed and ornate small birds – flashing reds, yellows and iridescent blues. The dawn chorus was more disturbing than Sandrine knocking at my door.
I watched the sun set over Congo from a beach bar again with a couple of Turbo Kings, but it was the end of a not very interesting day, on the whole. Better luck tomorrow..?
Rico emails that he and Adelight travelled down to Eldoret to pick up the Mosquito logbook today. It hasn’t arrived yet, but it has now been printed ‘already’ – in Nairobi. I doubt I’ll see it this trip. I really want Rico to have it for the eventual resale of the Mosquito.
DAY 88 THURSDAY 15th FEBRUARY 2017. KIBUYE, RWANDA
Perhaps you shouldn’t go back… It is one year yesterday since I was in Kibuye and took a memorably tranquil walk out along one of the headlands, watching large catamaran canoes paddling out to the fishing grounds, their evocative chanting floating up to me in the setting sun. This afternoon I repeated that walk but, where there were meandering tracks through the trees, are now twenty and thirty foot wide gravel roads, soon to be tarred, scarring the once pretty headland landscape. Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. If I were to come back in another 52 weeks, I reckon this will be the Kosta del Kivu, for innumerable ‘guest lodges’ are being erected, hideously unsympathetic to the lovely hills and inlets of Lake Kivu, with over-designed street lighting to get you there. From a distance the scars are horrible; from close up, it’s worse. Soon half of France will be booking online for winter holidays Rwanda. It will be the new ‘exotic’ destination: the place to be able to say ‘I was there’ (in French, of course).
I’m out of sorts today. Sick to screaming of “give me money” from seven out of ten children: the French colonial disease. Where does it come from? French tourists must just hand out coins, pens and sweets and have a paternalistic attitude to their ex-colonies. For it really IS so noticeable that the greetings change as you cross into ex-French (or Belgian) from ex-British countries. In French West Africa the commonest greetings are, “Bonjour, bon-bon? Bonjour, stylo?” and “Bonjour, cadeau?” Here it’s just, “Money!” It irritates me so much.
I’m going back to Uganda! After the weeks in Kenya and Uganda, this place just isn’t working for me. People aren’t UN-friendly, just apparently uninterested. They look at me without reaction or facial expression, making my progress so much less fun. So what’s the difference? It seems to be culturally deeply rooted to ask for money of white skinned people. It HAS to be a habit of colonial influence and different attitudes by the French and Belgians to their dependents, more paternalistic perhaps, than the British colonisation? I wish I could explain it.
There are VERY few independent travellers visible in Rwanda, but a lot of booked tours: often individual ones, just a couple of mzungus sitting in the back of a safari vehicle with a local driver. Sadly, I have to allot Rwanda the wooden spoon in the friendly stakes for Africa (Botswana comes close, but they’re so rich they are arrogant). Yes, I need to get back to cheerful, outgoing Uganda.
Rwanda, though, is very lovely scenically. Alongside Lesotho (still top!), it’s splendid. And, like Lesotho, it’s mainly mountainous and quite high. Lake Kivu, beside which I am sitting with tonight’s Turbo King, is at about 1400 metres, and my ride today was lovely, through high tea estates and wooded hills, with fine views down to Lake Kivu with all its convolutions, and Congo shimmering across the water, thirty miles away. It was a short ride, but the lake creates a hot humidity, although the threatening rain dissipated today and left me with high blue skies.
Thinking back to the same journey 52 weeks ago, I appreciate that the Hunan Bridge and Road Construction Company have done a good job, even if almost no one uses the road they have built from Gisenyi to Kibuye. I remember the effort and struggle through half-built road surfaces; deviations across deep muck and slippery filth; being dusty, muddy and tired. Today, I spun along the new tarmac, occasionally recognising the challenges of the last time I rode this way.
Once again, I didn’t have to hassle to find a room: I stayed in the same lakeside hotel, hideous though it is, before. At less than £14 I have a room with a balcony (on the side of the hotel, it’s true!) and all the facilities I’d have if I paid three times as much, including this small beach on the bay.
But I miss the exuberant cheer of Uganda and Kenya. I will hasten through the capital, Kigale, probably the day after tomorrow. It held no attraction last time, and I doubt it’s added any. Perhaps I have been alone too long, have seen all these beauties before, and am getting introspective and irritable? I know the antidote is laughter and smiles, greetings and excitement back in English-speaking East Africa. Rwanda IS beautiful, but I exhausted its wonders a year ago.
Then, to confirm my decision to go back to Uganda, in comes a text message from Sipi. Alex had phoned earlier but the line cut:
“Our dear, lovely J. We proudly want to say that we love u so much!! We lack a correct word to express our love for you actually. Thank you very much for the help ure giving us. We got the money. Thank you Jonathan for that… Work still continues. I was cut off during the day. I wish u safe journey back home. Pliz take care of ure self. U mean a lot to me. Ure loving Alex and Precious. WE MISS U SO MUCH. Safe journey.”
Yes. Back to Uganda! Pity about those bloody Ethiopians…
DAY 89 FRIDAY 16th FEBRUARY 2017. NYANZA, RWANDA
The problem with travelling in Rwanda is that I am getting lonely. This doesn’t happen much in Kenya, Uganda or any of the southern African lands. I always find someone to talk to – and just occasionally, make friends. But Rwandans, apart from the fact that very few speak any English, and I doubt I’d do much better were I fluent in French, are just not very interested in any interaction. Many just look at me with no facial expression, while others are irritating the hell out of me by being initially friendly then: “Give me money!”, and some of them even bypass the initial friendliness and go straight for the “money..?” In Uganda and Kenya, I have constant conversations – and not all of them the usual questions; sometimes I meet educated people who actually value talking to an outsider, sharing opinions and finding out about other parts of the world. Rwandans appear introspective and disinterested, and I hear many a joke, obviously at my expense, something that NEVER happens amongst the more respectful neighbours. I don’t THINK it’s just me, getting paranoid and lonely! My instincts, after all these years and countries, are pretty well honed. I have always said that curiosity (and compassion: and the two are inextricably connected) is my most rated human quality; I don’t feel much of it here.
Last year, I had suspicions of all this, but the novelty and beauty of the landscape were enough to keep my attention for ten days or so. It was fascinating to investigate the recent history, and how a nation makes peace with itself after wholesale slaughter and unimaginable atrocities perpetrated by one half of the population on the other only 25 years ago. I came to a profound respect for the way the small country has dealt with that (I’m not writing about it: it’s all in last year’s journal), but I did find the people reserved and distant. If the neighbours weren’t so gregarious, maybe my reaction wouldn’t be so extreme. I wish I understood more of the Rwandan national character to know if the genocide was cause or effect, or even if it’s related, to my general antipathy to the population… My only responses are superficial and instinctive.
The country is, however, very beautiful. Today’s journey is a repeat of one I took (twice, I think) a year ago, and it didn’t pall with a third viewing. Southwards from Kibuye, the road sweeps and curves, smooth tarmac, through the convoluted hills and the twisting bays and inlets of Lake Kivu – it’s a grand motorcycling road on a brilliantly sunny day with cotton wool clouds in the African skies. For fifty miles I leaned and swept the little Mosquito through the empty curves. It’d have been more fun on a BMW, this road, but the little bike, with its knobbly trail tyres and its insipid food-processor engine, has to make do. And I am busy watching the views unfold below the road anyway, so I don’t really need the excitement of speed! I swished and swept south alongside the deep, methane-soaked lake enjoying the ride and the sunny views, before turning east again, towards the bottom of the country, and climbing into the hills and the wonderful Nyungwe National Park, one of the finest African rides. It’s another smooth, empty road that sweeps through the thickness of the equatorial forest, on a high shelf cut into the mountainsides. Vegetation presses down to the roadside. There are animals there somewhere, but all I see at the roadside in the midday heat are a few monkeys, their white tipped tails flashing as they scamper away from my puttering engine that disturbs the intense quiet up here. When I stop and sit on a rock the silence wraps itself around me: just insects whining and the gentle breeze disturbing large noisy leaves. Around me are all manner of ancient species: ferns and aloes, parasitic plants and creepers that look like things from prehistory. Butterflies dance on the breeze and I can gaze far below into the canopies of the thick green forest.
The national park and the dense forest lasts for a magical forty miles or so, then, as always in Africa, it is instantly back to legions of people at the roadsides and agriculture – in this happy case, tea estates, for I am high in the mountains by now. Tea carpets the steep slopes, intricately terraced and such an unnaturally tidy crop. It has the most vibrant green and contrasts artfully with the blue leaves of a million eucalyptus trees, graceful, wraithlike forms dividing the tailored tea bushes into a patchwork of the greatest beauty.
Slowly, the road descends towards Huye, a small city in the centre of Rwanda, with wide boulevards but of little interest to me: I stayed last year. I rode on to the north, to Nyanza, a small town in which I also stayed a year ago. But now the hotel that gave me a bargain room for £15 asked a non-negotiable, stony-faced £25, the receptionist more concerned with her mobile phone than a potential customer. I found a place for eleven quid up the road; quite adequate for my needs. I need a comfy, quiet sleep tonight: last night my bed had a foam mattress about a foot thick. As soon as I laid in the middle the sides curled up like a deep hammock! I woke with a stiff neck.
I don’t know what to make of Rwanda this year, but I know it’s not working for me. Maybe it’s my mood too? I recognise that I am getting tetchy (surely not!!!) and some of that’s to do with being on my lonesome for too long. And there’s no novelty to make it fascinating… But I am used to travelling alone, and I usually bounce back quickly, with just a friendly contact. When people ask me of my last trip here, I tend to describe it as beautiful but not particularly friendly. I doubt that assessment will change.
“Give me money!”
This ‘motel’ is also a bar. It’s Friday night. It will be noisy. I am irritable. Not a good recipe. I asked for food (it does say ‘restaurant’ outside). Only chicken and bloody chips. No Turbo King. “Oh, forget it. I’ll walk to town,” says the irritable foreigner petulantly. Off I go and get supper and my beer half a mile away. Then I walk back later. The shy fellow who’s been left in charge of the bloody foreigner (his colleague, who spoke English and promised me, ‘no, Friday is not noisy here’, (Huh!) has gone) finds me. “Your command…”
“Quesque se, ‘command’?” I ask.
He’s prepared the disgusting repast. And it’s now ME who feels an absolute heel for losing my rag earlier. Travellers should have infinite patience. I just took him £2 in embarrassed contrition. “I no spek ‘glish…” No, I know. And, really, should I expect you to..?
Time to go somewhere else.
DAY 90 SATURDAY 17th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
Well, look where I am tonight. Finding myself 25 miles from my favourite hotel and town in cheery Uganda, I thought, ‘that’s it. Why struggle? I’m going back to Uganda!’
I’m so stubborn that I hate to feel I failed, and had I not seen so much of Rwanda last year, I would probably have persevered, but my irritability was making me tense and cynical; I’d stopped enjoying myself. The last couple of young men, who were ostensibly helpful when I stopped to ask directions, and then resorted to “give me money!”, a demand rather than a request, I told to ‘go away’ in terms I would despise in myself as an experienced traveller, were I not so uptight. I tried, I really did. I even told myself that through my ear plugs I was hearing “bonjour, welcome!” Shouted from the roadside, but I know I wasn’t because the upturned palm often gave away the actual translation. Many people were ostensibly friendly, waving and smiling – until they got the opportunity to gather round my bike if I stopped, at which point the demands began. A few, I admit, were cheerful and exuberant in the East African style, but I found my self thinking they must be ex-pat Ugandans! Most returned my smiles with a blank stare, and many an inquisitive look; but not the sort to which I become so accustomed here, that breaks into wide smiles when I react. I travel in Africa to react with the people. We don’t have to share a language (although of course, the communication is deeper and more fun when we do): I’ve enjoyed that sort of human interaction without language – the smiles say as much as anyone could wish. We just need to share curiosity. These four days I have been returned so many blank stares for my smiles.
Perhaps this country has had more aid than many, after the events of 1994 – but that’s 24 years ago, more than a generation in African terms, so why does this dependence persist? Statistically, I believe Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies on the continent; okay, so much of this doesn’t make the peasants rich, but the infrastructure is hugely developed, with the opportunities that brings: getting your produce to market, improved strains of seeds and fertilisers, better access to education – so many of the things the polite, generally optimistic, cheery neighbours lack. Yet here, this begging is endemic. Why do nations differ so much? A hundred yards away from the last importuning Rwandan, I was in happy conversation with the Ugandan customs man, David and his colleague, who were immediately intrigued by my journey, where I was from, why an old bloke like me chose a motorbike, which must be hard work; we were shaking hands, exchanging views, laughing. And people crowding the Ugandan border area were caring for me: “your pocket is undone; you will lose your passport!”
I’m pleased too to find that it’s not just me. Coming back to the warmest welcomes at the White Horse Inn (where else would I go?), in moments I was joking and conversing with the staff. “Sometimes we don’t even want to serve these Rwandans, but we know they bring money, so we must… My brother, he was offered a job in Kigale, but he didn’t take it as he knew the character of Rwandans,” says Isaac, the bar waiter in his plaid waistcoat and bow tie.
One of the managers offers an explanation that may mitigate some of this Rwandan national malaise. He says that Rwandans are indeed very poor. The government of Paul Kagame, who arrived on the scene in 2000, after more unrest, now rules the country with an uncompromising totalitarian regime. “The people have no freedom; no ability to earn freely,” he says. “They are very poor, the Rwandan people… They can’t earn. The government controls everything.” So it seems that they have little free will or self expression and the apparently paternalistic government, so admired by outsiders, is in fact repressive. Kagame has brought stability and is much favoured by the West (no corruption, strong central control, good security – hence, huge investment), although whispering doubts increase about his rule, and whether he will become the next African life president. But after the events of 1994, maybe this is the best control to prevent any repetition? When you see the horrors of the genocide memorials, with their bashed skulls of adults and babies, crushed bones, and heaped ossuaries, it does make you wonder if that is where self expression got the country, and wonder if this oppressive regime is, for now at least, better, despite the fact that severe limits to individual rights and freedoms may have left the people poor?
Rwanda IS very beautiful, although much of the land is heavily cultivated and populated – and intricately terraced. It’s a mountainous kingdom, well cared for, and in parts quite splendid. In a country developing so fast, the map printed by the tourist office in 2012 bears little relation to the actual topography. I picked a route from Nyanza, through the small capital, Kigale, to the emptier north eastern parts of the country. The road from Nyanza to Kigale is fine, sweeping through the mountains, with habitations becoming denser amongst the thickly cultivated hills. Thankfully, a signpost directed me on my road to the north before I entered the city. The next twenty kilometres were astonishing, climbing higher and higher onto ridges that seemed to be on the very top of the country. I wondered just why it was necessary to climb so high; surely there must have been other, lower routes? Perhaps not. I’m frequently intrigued how road designers choose their routes through mountains.
Back at ground level, so to speak; I suppose I must have passed up and over into a deep valley inaccessible from Kigale any other way, I looked for the turn to Gicumbi, my destination, imagining, as the map indicated, another fine national highway. This road turned out to be no more than a rough track sketched across plunging mountainsides. It was magnificent! I do enjoy those rough trails through the beauties of East Africa. This one was a rough track indeed, with views down into deep valleys filled with neat tea bushes, from my narrow earthy shelf. It wound through small villages and over wooden bridges, huge, steep drops off to the side. It was only a pity that children and young men greeted me so often with their palm-up pleasantry. I tried to ignore the shouts for money, but at last, back on tar after 20 miles of this punishing reward, seeing that Kabale was only an hour away on a decent tar road, my decision was made. Uganda it was.
Really, someone as mechanically inept as me shouldn’t be allowed to ride motorbikes through Africa. The Mosquito began to run a bit irregularly a few days ago; a problem, I diagnosed, with the petrol/air mixture. I had a young man clean out the carburettor in Gisenyi (for £1) and several times checked the air intake, choke and so on. It was back-firing rather dramatically (I saw one poor woman with a load on her head, leap off the road in horror!) and running roughly. I sit there in fear of breakdown day in, day out. Shuddering up a hill and exploding down the other side, soon after leaving Nyanza this morning, I remembered that I fitted a new spark plug back in Kitale and had put the used one in a bag pocket as a spare. How about trying the old one..? I am always immoderately thrilled when my repairs work! It did. It’s pretty pathetic: I ride five or six thousand miles a year in Africa these days, and I still have no aptitude for mechanics.
I’m glad to get back to East Africa time. That extra hour in the morning made the last four days very long. Maybe, though, the disappointments of Rwanda were more to blame for my tiredness. I am back in smiling, cheery Uganda and feel so much more stimulated and less grouchy within a couple of hours.
Happy to be among friends again. “Eh! Our friend, Mr Bean! How was your journey?”
DAY 91 SUNDAY 18th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
Lake Bunyonyi is one of Uganda’s acknowledged sights. I made a brief visit last year but found it to be extremely touristic, with all that implies: ugly ‘lodges’, boat rides, salesmen and all things commercial. However, my map – the same one that sent me on last Sunday’s magical ride on that remote road almost along the country’s border – shows an insignificant red line that leaves the fine mountain road at about the same point, at the end of the lake, where the boda-boda boys wash bikes and lorries in lake water, but wriggles back to Kabale alongside the lake. This was another wonderful ride.
The track was dreadful – and the usual fun. How I used to enjoy trail riding with my friends 30 years ago: muddy or stony tracks a mile or two long in Yorkshire. I still enjoy it, in tens of miles, even by myself, on these far-flung scratches across the African landscapes. This track began four or five feet above lake level and climbed, over the next twenty miles, high, high into the mountains with fabulous vistas of crumpled hillsides and tortuous sinews of the calm lake, twisting and weaving into the steep clefts, and dotted with many little romantic isles. Blue-grey eucalyptus waved in the breeze, setting off the green terraced meadows and the dark coniferous forests. The morning’s rain receded, bringing that inimitable equatorial clarity that makes the panoramas seem endless. There’s an intensity to the light here, probably the ultraviolet, that extends the sweep of landscapes far beyond what seems possible. Above, arches the limitless African sky: so big, so blue; the clouds so stark and white. The sun, overhead by the time I set off, makes a sharp chiaroscuro on the dried pink mud and pitted rocks of the trail as it passes countless spindly eucalyptus. To my left rise jagged outcrops where the track has been hacked through, and to my right precipitous drops that concentrate the mind on the ride. I stop often; the camera bag rides all day over my shoulder – for quick access, but also to reduce the vibration. The wonder of digital photography is that I need not limit my shots: in the days of colour slides at 50 pence a picture, it was different.
Way, way up the mountainside I came back to a better gravel road: the one the tour vehicles use to reach the fancy resorts of the developed part of the lake, eight kilometres from Kabale. I had greeted and waved to dozens of people along the trail. Yes, a handful asked for money (education levels were low, where I was riding) – but they were just chancers trying it on, and seemed sanguine about my dismissal. The vast majority just laughed to see me there, with a smile on my face, enjoying myself and reacting with a certain equality, for we shared the moments, however briefly. There was NO blank face. This was another lovely ride.
This region of Uganda is without doubt my favourite. Tomorrow I will begin the ride back to the east. My safari ends in just three weeks. One more night in this amusing hotel and then a few nights who knows where? I will return via Sipi to visit Alex and Precious of course.