EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – NINE




And so, full circle – although the ride back from Addis Ababa can hardly be said to be a circle, as I followed many of the same roads as those with which I went. But back to my surrogate home in East Africa, where I am assured of a warm, familiar welcome. I am allowed to feel ‘at home’ here: I don’t seem to disrupt the family activity too much, just an extra mouth at mealtimes, and conversation for Adelight. This week is half term, so Marion and Bo are at home with Adelight and Scovia, and happy little Maria. Also back now; she was at home for the Christmas holidays, is Sarah, the rather timid, quiet, house girl.

The house is in some upheaval just now, in the midst of renovations: an internal wall that had to be replaced, repainting the walls, new covers for the settees, painting the exterior, and later, new tiles for the floor. Life in every African household is hand to mouth, no less so in this one, which relies on income when Rico gets a contract. Right now he is in central Zambia renovating a fleet of Land Cruisers for a private safari park. It’s a good, rolling contract – there are a couple of dozen vehicles – and should keep the family finances afloat for a time. He still has school fees and all the other costs of his large extended family to bear in this most admirable ‘family’ I know, composed of so many young women, many of whom have no blood relation to one another, but form the most cohesive family I am happy to know – and even be accepted into for a few weeks each year, these past trips. It’s been Rico’s huge commitment, a real expression of absolute generosity that one doesn’t often witness: to make the formation of such a family your life’s interest. It’s had its ups and downs: a few children fell by the wayside, but it has the ultimate reward in the love and respect they feel for him. Rico’s a year older than me, and Adelight a good deal younger, so she must find some measure of independence. About the time I leave Kenya, she will go to Eldoret to take a short course in mushroom cultivation, and a couple of buildings are in progress in the compound for this purpose. She reckons to have already the main customer, one of the larger Kitale supermarkets waiting for her supplies. 

“Oh, we can’t do this work when Rico is here! He hasn’t the patience!” exclaims Adelight, as more and more furniture is pushed to the centre of the main living room and piled up away from the walls. It IS a bit of a mess, but a happy mess, as Scovia clambers on a stool, paintbrush in hand. Mike, another sibling of Adelight’s – same father, different mother: polygamy is quite common here in Kenya (although never two husbands per wife, that’s still very sexistly called infidelity… Different rules for men and their behaviour in Africa) is painting while the other girls give the house a deep clean behind them. It’s a merry bustle; no one complains that they want to be elsewhere, not doing these chores. They all know how fortunate they are to live happily together in this cheerful household. Shared chores are what they expect.


Adelight and I go to town to collect newly made stripy cushions from a tailor by the street side. We enjoy one another’s company, Adelight and I. She’s happy because I can always find things to watch in town while she does her business. Rico doesn’t have that patience – but then it’s not all new for him as it is for me. The house is in complete upheaval today, slowly getting back to normal this evening as we all return furniture and Adelight delights in her new cushions. She’s chosen a sort of zebra theme for the living room, with white walls. She enjoys this activity. 


Kitale is a busy town; small enough to be friendly. Under the clutter you can still see some of the colonial architecture, with an Indian influence from the earlier traders. There are still Indian businesses in town. It intrigues me to see how ‘Indian’ the Indians remain, considering that most of them are second or third generation at least and most probably no longer have any connection with their not-very-home country. They still remain somewhat aloof from the Kenyans. 

The streets are wide, filled with people and randomly parked cars. Council attendants collect parking fees. There are boda-bodas everywhere, weaving about, vastly overloaded with sacks, crates, multiple passengers, timber, bundles and even piles of trays of eggs; the riders often have to sit on their tanks. Many of them have the habit of texting or talking on the ubiquitous mobiles as they ride.

Traders fill every pavement and the areas in front of the old lock-up shops. There’s colour everywhere you look. On the corner where the cushion tailor sits at his foot-treadle sewing machine, stitching Adelight’s black and white covers, sit several other sewers, machine stitching intricate embroidery. One woman is embroidering the name of a schoolgirl onto a pile of clothing, even on the outside of the blouse collars. Everyone will know Olivia’s name: it’s even stitched onto her socks for school. In the sunshine, across the covered, arcaded shop fronts where all the tailors, and the lottery sellers sit amongst heaps of new suitcases and bags, blankets and plastic clothes’ dummies – oddly pink in hue for Africa – are stalls selling ironware. I always like to look at these, for there are so many useful items: handmade axes, hammers, spades, forks, locks, hinges, and spanners. A man pumps at a treadle sharpener made from a bicycle wheel and grinding disc. It hums as it spins; he hones one of the big axes for a customer. “Hey, mzungu!” calls a woman selling Chinese clothes, draped on hangers and a few wan dummies in a corner between crumbling buildings. Every space is utilised somehow. This is how people scratch a living. It’s a cheerful hubbub; noisy and colourful. As if anyone needs it, loud, boringly repetitive music plays from huge speakers across the street, but it’s all part of the town atmosphere, and everyone seems deaf to the chaos. Occasionally, someone pulls a protesting goat or drives sheep across the street. The fat beggar-woman, with a deformed leg, who habitually reduces the pavement to single file outside the supermarket, talks on her mobile phone; Matatus hoot and call for passengers, men load trucks and boda-bodas; horrid vultures wheel and soar in the cloudless blue above, circling for carrion. For a moment I mistake a tall, gangly crane on a roof for a sculpture, then it moves its long head and swings its huge beak and beady eyes to the distance and flies off, ungainly, legs trailing. Almost together, Adelight and I decide we might as well wait in the cafe behind the tailor’s sewing machine spot. We’ve been watching him for half an hour, probably stressing him. He can get on without us; he’s fifteen cushions to sew up and insert zips. The cafe is busy on this street corner but most of the things on the plastic encapsulated menu aren’t actually available – just wishful thinking. So long as you want goat, ughali, chips, or fried chicken you might be lucky. Ask for fresh juices and there’s no hope: soda, yes, sickly sweet, made by the evil Coca Cola Corporation that has taken over the world. I order mixed tea, and Adelight has a Coke. We both choose a couple of samosas and agree they are rather good. “Samosas have to be greasy like this!” I joke as the oil runs onto the plate in a pool as we bite them. 


My phone rings in my pocket. I feel it vibrate. It’s a funny story; becoming something of a running joke. You may remember that I met Jessica in Archers Post when she joined me to chat after supper. She’d arrived recently from near Kitale to work as a cleaner and bed-maker at the campsite and huts in the women’s cooperative guest house. Feeling sorry for her plight – single mother with three boys left at home 500 miles away to fend for themselves while she chased a poorly paid job so far away, I gave her 1000 bob (£7.70) as I left and told her to send it to the children. Of course, I was naive, not remembering that from a mzungu this would be seen as next to a proposal of marriage! She texted several times after I left and then started making calls to my phone, even a Valentine’s message! Wazungu are so often seen in this rather mercenary, romantic light by women of a certain age in Africa… While walking the last few days with William, I switched off my phone, but any time anyone called HIM, we’d joke, “Archers Post!” Now Adelight is in on the joke.

“Next time she rings, let ME answer it!” She laughs her cheerful laugh, imagining how she will answer and ask what Jessica wants with her ‘husband’! “Then your calls will stop!” We enjoy this joke. Adelight and I are very compatible company. She’s not only a very warm, capable woman, but has a quick wit and excellent English, although I sometimes have to unravel her Kenyan intonation a bit. “Haha! I will answer as your wife!” The trouble is, probably lonely, Jessica dreams of escape and she met a mzungu… My small gesture of generosity was typically misinterpreted. But I know she wants my email address, and once she gets it, she will bug me for months. Perhaps I am ducking the issue but it’s a lot simpler just to let her think perhaps I lost my phone..? Well, the SIM card in my phone dies when I leave Kenya in three weeks. That’ll solve the problem. My trouble is, I’m too soft-hearted…


Rico’s neighbour and old friend, Dutchman Cor, has set my mind at ease about the Mosquito for now. He knows about motorbike engines. He says the oil burning is an issue with the new piston rings. What’s wrong, we don’t know, but he assures me that, while not very environmentally friendly, burning the oil isn’t really any immediate problem for the continuation of my current journey: I can ride to Sipi next week, so long as I make sure the engine’s topped up. He also has an answer for the drive sprocket. “It’s even in the online manuals: as soon as you get your Suzuki, remove the sprocket bolt and replace using LockTite! It’s in the manual. A common problem. No, paint and superglue don’t work. Paint doesn’t dry and lubricates, and superglue gets too hot and brittle and breaks. You need proper LockTite. Rico and I have it, or you can buy it in town.” He’s promised to look at the sprocket for me tomorrow. I’ll probably head for Sipi on Monday – the hardest ride of all: 60 miles of serious trail riding. Fun though, and a journey I am perversely proud I can still make, pushing 70 – or 37…


Showers, precursors of what seem, again, to be early rains, concern me a bit. They make my riding so much more difficult if they become regular, controlling my riding hours and routes. The road to Sipi, for instance, will be impassible, or at least even more challenging, if the thick dust turns to slithery mud. Oh well, what will be, will be.


“Why have you given me special food?” I asked Adelight as we sat down to supper. Everyone was served very good vegetables and ughali, which I quite like; but on my plate was also some meat, reheated from last night. No one else got meat. “I don’t need to be treated differently!”

“But you are the guest!” Adelight declared.

“I’m still one of the family, and anyway, I did nothing useful at all today. Can you think of anything useful I achieved that deserves extra food?”

“No, you sat on your arse all day!” exclaimed Adelight, causing all the girls to join in my ridicule.

And, I guess she summed it up.  

But it’s a grand atmosphere in which to relax. The renovations continue, mainly outside now, so the disruption is a bit less. Adelight and I went to town to purchase timber and paint; timber for the mushroom house that is drying across the garden. It’s built about half way up from local baked bricks set in mud, and from there in mud blocks made by the workers – watchman, Vincent and a couple of hired builders – dried in the hot sun. In a day or two, “Oh, they can start tomorrow,” says Adelight. They will cement render on top of the mud and bricks, inside and out, sealing the structure. A zinc sheet roof will complete the simple building. Much of Africa builds with mud. Talking with Francisca in Kessup the other day, she was bemoaning the state of her mud built house. “How old is it?” I asked. “Fifteen years,” she told me; not bad for a mud structure. Well maintained, they can survive the rains for years; the main problem is termites attacking the wooden parts and foundation posts, if there are any. Timber in Africa is always a vulnerable material.

We drove to a timber yard in the most crowded part of town. Stacked twenty foot high on racks was tons of timber, curling and twisting in the hot sun, unseasoned and newly cut. This is the customary structural material. Two men planed down planks, somewhat unevenly. I thought of my frequent trips to my local builders’ merchants and Southern Timber; how I select the straight seasoned planks, reject the unacceptably – very slightly! – warped ones. Here. It’s just a case of taking what’s available. On a devilish circular saw (no safety guard) two fellows cut rough six by twos into three by twos for us. As they came off the saw they bent away from each other like live things. 

I’ll try not to start on another tirade about TV..! But… Oh dear, this is half term, so with a group of young people in the house, the TV gets a lot of air time. The available fare (or perhaps just the selections they make) is of such lousy quality. The continent is invaded by the worst, most trivial and insidious of American TV. Young Bo, fourteen and most susceptible to the lure of the mall screen – a phone scroller too – chooses action movies directed at teenagers. They extol, of course, the American Way of Life: consumerism, romance and economic success, and denigrate ‘evil’ influences in such terrible cliches that I wonder why the, presumably adult, script writers aren’t embarrassed to attach their names to this crap. The images are all computer tweaked and the editing, to my eye, cuts together the fighting, violence and fantasy in such glaringly unsubtle technique as to remove any need for imagination. Meanwhile, the viewers – on every continent, I guess, as this culturally arid shit is now everywhere – infuse the influences; their imaginations atrophy; they become couch potatoes and set themselves up for lifetime health problems –  manipulated by global corporations for their own profit.

And as for the – African made – music video channels..! All repetitive beat music created by computer engineers, not songsmiths or composers, to images sexually manipulative (all bums and tits in tight clothes) and sexist, and conspicuous consumption: sports cars and swimming pools, flashy, tasteless mansions and the like… 

And this is what young people watch – all day long.  

Sorry… Maybe it’s always been the role of the old(er) to criticise the taste of the young? But at least I haven’t railed much about religion this year! 


Sad to say, the rains seem to have arrived. Very early this year and not to my liking. I hoped to get out of Kenya before the wet season commenced. I’ve still about 500 miles that I have promised to ride: to visit Alex and Precious in Sipi; to revisit Nashon, the mechanic in Brooke, and to call by William’s in Kessup on the way back if I have time. It’s beginning to look as if I may have to ride to Sipi on the tar road, through the major border crossing to the south of Kitale. That’s much more of a bureaucratic hassle, and twice the distance, than going through remote Suam, but that road will be becoming almost impassible if this weather continues. I want to start on Monday, so I have a few days back here at home with Rico before I leave the country.


It’s been all go, round the homestead today. Adelight and Rico have decided, wisely, to become independent for water supply, and have hired a couple of well diggers to dig down to the relatively abundant water levels below the garden. Today they started, digging a hole about four feet around with a crowbar; a hoe and bucket on a rope. When we left at lunchtime, they had already progressed about two metres. The soil was completely dry every centimetre of the way, as it will be for some time yet. They expect to meet dry season water anywhere after 30 feet deep. Meanwhile, the mushroom factory got its roof timbers and zinc sheets. Work in the house was restricted to completing the painting of the porch, as we all went on a family trip to visit Betty, Adelight, Scovia and Marion’s mother, who lives about 30 miles south. 

She lives in a rural area on the lower slopes of Mt Elgon. Her children have been assisting in building her a house (designed by Rico) but it’s rather unfinished, not an uncommon state of accommodation in Africa, where many live in part-completed ruins for years, awaiting funds to continue. “We had to complete our own house, so we stopped building here…” says Adelight, looking round the bare cement walls, the rough concrete floor and the unlined roof. There’s no electricity connected yet and most of the rooms are bare shells, but that never stops Africans moving in; it saves rent and everyone’s used to rough conditions, so a few paraffin lanterns and your bed under a net in a part-built bedroom is luxury when you know you own the bedroom. 

Betty has six children: Adelight and her twin sister in Nairobi (mother of lovely little Shamilla), Scovia, Ken, Tito and Marion.

“And your father? How many children has he?” For he is a polygamist. 

“Total..?” Adelight thinks for a moment, “…around fifteen..?” with a laugh. She knows what I am thinking, but as a woman, even she’d never criticise openly. Abandon hope, Planet Earth. If nothing else brings us down as a species, African men will do the job very efficiently. 

Scovia and Marion have lived with, and been the responsibility of Adelight and Rico for a decade or more, just part of the extended family. They’ve taken Rico’s name as a surname. Betty and the children moved to remote Lodwar back in about 2003 (mainly, I infer, to get away from their father). and that’s where Rico was living, in the deep northern desert, amongst the fascinating, but very rugged and troublesome tribal area of the Turkana people, a tribe of semi-nomadic animal herders with few trappings of modern life. I stayed in Lodwar for a few weeks in 2001 and 2002, one of the most outlandish African frontiers, or so it felt. 

Days pass in easy contentment and cheerful large family fun. I’m accepted by these lovely girls warmly. That’s the wonder of the extended family, an institution I have come to respect like no other in Africa. It is so flexible that it can welcome even someone of a different generation and culture. I have my extended families all over Africa – and have encouraged a few in other parts of the world too! Our frequently dysfunctional ‘nuclear’ families are so selfishly based; the extended family of Africa is based on equality and generous warmth. We all bring to it what we have. I know that sometimes I am the money provider, but I get back so much in emotional warmth. It’s just that I am the one who has more money; as I said the other day: I never resent paying for William’s beer and food. I know instinctively that if he had money he would share with me. It’s the way friendship, and especially ‘family’ works on this continent: an entirely different, generally more healthy way of quantifying relationships, unlike the way we count the cost and feel responsibility to reciprocate equally. The most generous people I meet around this world are those with the least material wealth to give: they give whatever they have and don’t count the cost. 


It’s cool and damp tonight. The weather’s changing fast now. 


There’s no way I can take the scenic route to Sipi tomorrow. It’s been raining hard again tonight and the temperature has dropped. The rough road will be muddy and slippery on two wheels. 


I took Adelight and all the girls, with a couple of their friends, and young Mike, Adelight’s half brother, who’s been helping with the redecoration project in the house, to the archaic Kitale Club this evening. The girls like to swim and meet their friends, while some of us sit on the terrace and gaze across the greens towards where Mount Elgon would be seen, were it not for the rainclouds and mist. A chilly wind blew about us and it wasn’t the experience it can be in the warm equatorial sunshine. And the trouble with the club is that it invariably irritates me  – and then I get ashamed of my short temper, and trying to judge by my European standards. For some reason, not disconnected to its sense of superiority and wish to appear somewhat exclusive as a private members’ golf and drinking club, it just rubs me wrong. I’d probably get just as provoked in any similar institution in England, which may be why I never joined one! The waiting staff are the worst on this continent, a fault I could probably overlook, were it not for that snobbish ‘exclusivity’ the club tries to project. I have never yet got what I ordered (I specifically ordered roast potatoes – and got the usual chips; I actually wrote a drinks order on a piece of paper, but the waiter brought only five of the eight drinks – and the bill!), and the system of accounting is so arcane that I think they just think of numbers. I queried the bill. It turned out – but it was my responsibility to prove it – that they were charging me for twelve meals, while we were eight diners… The club’s made acceptable by the view of the landscape across the greens, laid out by ancient snobbish colonial Englishmen who wanted to get away from ‘the natives’ into their own exclusionary country club. Were I a member, I’ve a suspicion I’d be removed by the ‘Members’ Committee’…

Then I feel guilty! I can’t win. Trouble is, they always make it seem as if YOU ordered incorrectly – even when you have given them a written order of eight items in simple block capitals. Oh well, the girls enjoyed seeing their friends when they could draw their eyes away from their phones. (The two visitors had serious addictive problems, thumbs scrolling obsessively, attention span zero milliseconds). The Club food’s mediocre, but it gives all these lovely teenagers a trip out and a chance for the treat of an apparently bold glass of wine in as refined surroundings as Kitale has to offer! Poor Adelight has to put up with my impatience. You can sense that I was quite put out by it all, but I’ll get over it. The grumpy old(ish) man in me doesn’t often appear in Africa, where I am generally relaxed and accepting. 


Marion, in her last school year, has seldom said much to me beyond polite greetings; she’s a bit shy with the mzungu uncle. This morning, left alone at the breakfast table when all the others had scattered about their business, we had a long conversation, and found a lot of contact. She has artistic and practical tendencies and admits to being unacademic. Her school mates ridicule her for enjoying her agriculture lessons and their practical side of growing cabbages and kale. “Let them laugh!” I said. ‘You’ll have the last laugh. Anyone with practical skills will be able to live, while they, with their academia will struggle! At least you’ll be able to eat cabbage!” We laughed at the idea, but I can see that Kenyan schools are making all the mistakes of the British system, on which theirs is based: trying to get good marks for their schools in the fact-based subjects that can be easily tested. They value academia at the cost of making useful citizens with useful skills. I told her how much I hated my school, with its academic values, and dismissal of my artistic skills. (“You’re a bloody fool, boy. no one passes art in this school.” Words of the horrible deputy headmaster that I haven’t forgotten in fifty years. Maybe I got that single exam grade A of my life out of spite!). Marion showed me some sketches and she has ability, put down relentlessly by her school. Sometimes I think we get through our school years despite the school systems that are imagined to be good for us… 

Marion is back to school tomorrow for her last couple of terms and exams – that will test useless things like her ability to learn and regurgitate facts. Like me, she’ll have to start afresh after school and find a direction. She’s interested in design or even architecture, using and developing drawing skills, and even might like to experiment in growing less common vegetables in the shamba at home, carrots maybe, for sale. It’s so sad to see young people with potential enterprise and enthusiasm put down by the rigidity of the school system. It’s not just a western problem, as Marion proves. 


It’s surprisingly chilly outside tonight, down to 16 or 17 degrees. But my room in the garden is quiet and I sleep really well out here in the compound in my reasonably cosy mud and cement house, drops falling from the overhanging trees onto the zinc roof a bit noisily. Well, I am better off than Rico, down in central Zambia, where it hasn’t rained so much since 1925. Last Sunday, he writes in an email this morning, lightning took out the internet and 65mm of rain fell in 25 minutes. That’s over two and a half inches of rain. Poor Planet Earth: what are we doing to our fragile home? 


Lucy, who mended my bags


Kaptagat Hotel


Mount Kenya dead ahead as I climb from the desert


Rongoe, 90, in Kessup


The view over Kessup


Mercy, Kessup


Smart Gideon, Kessup


William and Kimoe


Fransisca, Kessup


At Kessup with William


Adelight serves lunch


























I’ve been without internet again, for over a week. So here’s another rather long episode as I’ve now found an increasingly rare internet cafe in Kitale, where I returned ‘home’ to warm welcomes yesterday afternoon. Even now, I can’t upload any more pictures than this, as the connection has dropped three times while trying to do this, so, here goes, another 11 days…



What is there to write about a day spent entirely watching Sam, the mechanic and his brother Steve, work on my Mosquito in their earthy yard? 

Well, I can tell you what a charming couple they are; how they seem to be excellent and inventive mechanics; how I have listened to moral stories based on the bible and god all day; how they have little respect for their Moslem neighbours in this town; how kind they are – and then, of course, I can describe their workshop…

It’s a dusty, earthy plot on the way out of town. A lot of derelict motorbikes lean about in various stages of dissolution, some of which then turn out to belong to customers, who ride them away. There are heaps of rubbish, mainly bits of wrecked piki-pikis, that turn out to contain magic. “Don’t worry,” Sam kept assuring me, as he took more and more of my engine to bits. “You will enjoy your journey. God will provide…” I’m not sure it was god, but the magic suitcase, a description that made Sam laugh, provided. In one of the large heaps of junk and rubbish, sat an old zipped suitcase, from which, astonishingly, Sam produced two valve seals to replace the loose, leaky (undoubtedly Chinese) ones that were causing much of my oil loss. Valve seals that fitted! “Oh, we have a truck in town with 200 engines! If we’d known you were coming back (my text never arrived) I have a whole Suzuki DR 200. We could have used original parts!” As it is, he has been forced to improvise and adjust new piston rings from Indian ones bought in town. But I have faith that he knows what he’s about, even as he files down such crucial parts as piston rings. The ones that Nashon used in early December were obviously very second rate, Chinese rings. Even I can see that they are half the thickness and already worn and ridged. 

As immigrants, “WE are Christians, they are all Moslem…” dismissively, they are fairly deeply prejudiced against the townsfolk. It appears that to get on in this town you need to be either Moslem or very faithful that the Christian god will provide. Happily, Sam and Steve have the latter confidence, a deeply held belief that shapes all their lives and keeps them optimistic and positive. It’s such a firm belief that I have to respect it. The morality tales wore on a bit as I sat there on a low stool from 11 until 6, but one thing I have discovered on my travels is that when someone helps you, you must go at their speed. Sam broke off all other engagements to work the whole day on my Mosquito. I’ve a fear that may extend into much of tomorrow, as he still has to reassemble it from its component parts, all stored in a rusty old iron bowl and a blue plastic mudguard on the dust. But, despite my faint impatience, the Mosquito will probably carry me onward without trouble. I doubt I’d have had much more trouble free riding if I hadn’t had the good fortune to meet Sam six weeks ago. He’s even made gaskets from the correct material, “It’s British!”, holding it up for my inspection, instead of the copious quantities of gasket cement that he is peeling off from various earlier works. 


The two young men who run the hotel in which I am staying; really a very pleasant one (although I have to step into the shower, shimmy round the door, which  doesn’t open because the washbasin is a mere centimetre too far to the left, to get to the lavatory, because the builder didn’t calculate the door swing), are friendly and welcoming. It’s intriguing, though, how little I sometimes understand of the life around me. Sam tells me, and he’s been observing this town from his very Christian viewpoint for many years, that these two – and many others of course – are immigrants from Ethiopia, originally Orthodox Christian, but converted to Islam to be able to get work in this region… Sam and Steve also have little time or respect for the Chinese, a pretty common prejudice, who come in entirely self interest to Africa, eat all the dogs and export donkeys by the lorry load for consumption in  China. They tell stories too of clandestine Chinese expeditions into areas not remotely related to their usual road building; the extraction of soils and rocks that will be secretly analysed back in China in the constant search for minerals, the Chinese obsession with Africa. They are here for themselves, looking to build up vast debts amongst African governments for which repayment will one day be demanded in mineral rights. China does nothing in anyone else’s interest. I have travelled far and wide on this continent, seeing frequent signs: ‘furnished by the peoples of the United States of America’, ‘provided by the European Union’, ‘United Kingdom Aid’ and so forth. I will probably fall off the Mosquito in shock, should I ever see a Chinese charitable project, but I think I am in no immediate danger of being so unseated.


Not a single person, young or old, asked me for money today. Many greeted me, shook my hand as I walked by and wished me well. Sam and Steve tell me that Ethiopians even beg from THEM when they cross the border, recognising (as I don’t) the racial difference. To some extent, I can see why a white man might be seen as a cash cow, but a Kenyan? Times are hard for them too, especially those who live in these distant desert extremes… 

I planned a day of rest on this journey south through the big desert. I’ve had one. I may end up with two! I need to get moving by Sunday though, or I might be kindly invited to spend it praising god with the charming but very devout Sam and Steve! That may be assimilation too far for me.


It was well after dark by the time I left Sam’s ‘workshop’ at 7.00 this evening. I’d been there since ten this morning. He’s a very charming man – but he talks a great deal, and he’s one of those people who cannot talk and work at the same time! He uses his hands to explain his stories. A few times I had difficulty keeping my patience, especially when, in response to my retort that Christians often fought each other too, not just the evil Moslems, he told me that HE could resolve Ireland’s 100 year old animosity because God would be with him. “Yeah, but whose god?” I bit my tongue from asking, “the protestant’ or the catholics’?”

And I did listen to a LOT about god and the bible, and an equal amount of anti-moslem rhetoric. It’s an unappealing thing about many devout Christians, that THEIR version of god is the only one to be considered. I accept that I have certain prejudices against Islam but I acknowledge, that to Moslems, their faith is as important and valid as any other. My prejudice is against a religion that is so repressive, appallingly sexist, and somewhat drowning in misery – and tries to make me feel guilty for having to seek out, at some difficulty, the only beer bar in town, a place of thick curtains, hidden on the fourth and top floor of one of the hotels. In my own hotel, I can get tea… However, I DO accept that all faiths have equal validity for those who believe, even if I speak from a viewpoint of no belief in any of them. But for God-will-provide-Sam, there’s only one true religion. I’ve met this extreme Christian focus amongst Afrikaners, and of course in America too, a real hotbed of ‘my god’s the only real one; theirs is an impostor’. 

However, he’s so kind to have rearranged his Sunday duties – teaching his rather literal interpretation of bible stories and Christian morality to children – to make the necessary adjustments to my Mosquito, which he has completely rebuilt over the last two days. I’ve watched every move, and he’s a competent mechanic. He has removed huge amounts of silicone sealant, the African answer to engine repair. He has made proper paper gaskets and peeled yards of silicone from every surface, and quite a bit out of the oil filter too! Pity he’s in remote Marsabit, as he’s a good mechanic – so long as you can tolerate the endless Christian evangelism.


Well, I was determined to pace myself on this journey back across the deserts to central Kenya. I didn’t quite mean to take so long, and Marsabit is a dull place, but there’s no rush: I have time to spare with still a month to travel. And I will know I can rely on my wheels. Without Sam’s ministration (unfortunate choice of word!) I’d probably have had no more than another 300 or 400 kilometres before a serious engine breakdown. The piston rings and valve seals were failing.

I’m just a bit nervous about setting off without properly testing the machine within reach of help. When Sam rode it this evening there were top end adjustments still to be made to get it starting and running smoothly. My next ride is over 200 kilometres, with very little habitation on the way. I’d hoped to be on my way tomorrow but perhaps I should ride around Marsabit and its desert first. It may mean a fourth night here. At least I sleep well in this hotel. I’ll assess the wisdom of making that journey when I meet Sam in the morning but a glimpse at the map shows just how empty are the next 150 miles. Not a region to in which break down! 


My little Mosquito seems to have gained about 50ccs since Thursday. New piston rings and new valve seals have increased the compression and made it go about ten kilometres an hour faster. It was mid-afternoon before we completed the work. Sam’s a very good mechanic I think, and doesn’t do jobs by halves. “I think we’ll just drop down the rear wheel and see to the brakes. When you go, I want you to enjoy the journey and god to go with you…” So off came the back wheel, and many creative changes made to bits that have been bodged badly by various African mechanics. Now bodged much more efficiently and inventively by impressive Sam. I have watched every stage of the lengthy process – accompanied today by several hours of bible reading on a small phone. Thankfully, it was in Swahili, so just noise to me, and as the battery died, it got quieter and quieter. Like I said, when people help you, you have to go at their speed and adapt to their ways. I’ve made myself very popular and respected by the two brothers as their ‘father’ and by being ‘so patient and respectful’ to them. I pointed out that the bible says, ‘do unto others how you wish others to do unto you’ (or whatever is the correct old saw). 

Marsabit is a bit of an end of the world place, a really very uninteresting outpost in the Kenyan desert. But I must say, it’s friendly. I’m now recognised around town and various young men have asked me if my bike was ready yet as I walked through town. Not many wazungu spend four days in this backwater. Almost everyone greets me in a warm manner as I walk, shaking hands if near enough, and waving greetings from their motorbikes. They’re all strangers, but Kenya is a remarkably amiable and convivial country. No one, young, old, destitute, dressed in rags or suits, has asked me for money. It’s just so uncommon in the old British colonies. “Ah, the British taught us to stand on our own feet!” explains Sam. “They made us to know that money must be earned, not given out. They brought us development.”


I’ll be glad to get away from the Islamic influence that forces me to hide away in the bar of the Silvia Hotel with its over-priced food, in order to drink a simple Tusker beer. My hotel is very congenial and the room comfortable, but it too is Moslem. I sleep well and am very laid back these days. There’s not much stress, beyond Sam’s god-talk, which eventually I just let flow past me, with an apparently appreciative grunt now and again. Sam’s such a knowledgable mechanic that I just take it on board as much as I can, without reaction. Oddly, he’s never once asked me about my belief. I suppose he just assumes that a white man MUST be Christian, as that’s where his religion came from, or at least the vehicle that brought it, with all those missionaries and ‘pastors’. I think he follows the latter, but I avoided any too intense enquiry, often diverting the conversation with a well aimed question about my engine instead! 

Sam’s supplied me with absolutely delicious, succulent mangoes, these past days, as I sat on an upturned paint can and watched him work. This is peak fruit season. Forget the stringy things we may get in England, just think soft flesh, ultimate sweetness and total freshness. This afternoon, he very charmingly boiled two small eggs from the hens he keeps in his ‘garage’ (ie. dusty, junk-filled plot). I told him I’ll eat then in the desert tomorrow. 

No way could I work in the fashion of so many practical Africans. Why not put down a simple floor and erect a sun shelter of old fabric, rather than work in squalor on the dirt and dust in the hot sun – “Oh, don’t worry, I have a big magnet…” as I worried about the tiny steel valve collets disappearing into the sand, oil and petrol slush? Occasionally, Sam would delve into one of the vast heaps of junk and old, rotting bike parts, and come up with some treasure, like new, efficient valve seals. But why store all this stuff in a derelict Land Rover covered by old canvas and zinc sheets flapping in the wind, or in fading suitcases in piles of scrap metal? I know money’s tight, but surely a rickety shed, a sheet of sun shade, a piece of old metal sheet on which to work, a small stand to put the bike on, so you’re not always curled up (with bad knees from motorbike accidents for both brothers) on paint cans and eight inch high stools? But I know I can’t apply my logic – from another culture and another economy – and must just accept that this is the way people do things here…


Goodness, today took a lot of bloody minded determination! I’m glad it’s behind me, and I begin to understand my loss of confidence on the way up to Ethiopia. When I rode these incredibly long roads before, I had no idea what was in front. Now I have that information, I know what to expect and still it daunts me. How I managed those ridiculously long days, I have no idea. Today I rode from 11 until 4, five hours, with a 45 minute break in the middle. The sun beats down on my helmet and shoulders, my face becomes dry and parched, the air is harsh and hard in my lungs, I am increasingly dirty and just a little deranged by the length of my ride. The bush lands change very slowly; there’s not much to engage attention: large herds of camels watching me imperiously and scornfully; some ostriches that make me laugh as they lope away, feathers waving in disgust, their dignity so affronted by my motorbike. They are such funny birds, so out of kilter with the norms of nature, cartoon birds. Somewhere on my road I passed a dead animal, killed in a collision with a vehicle. I’ve never seen an aardvark before. What a strange animal, sadly deceased. 

It’s so empty and lonely out there as I bat along. But actually, I am almost never really alone. In the middle of apparently nowhere at all, people walk the roadside, follow padding camels, sit on a bridge abutment, sit under a tree, walk the distant red soil through the bush. Where are they going? Where have they come from? Why are they there? I guess I’ll never know, but I do know that in Africa, whenever I think I am alone and far from anyone, someone will appear at the roadside, wave from a distant hill, be hanging washing on bushes beside a crude dwelling in the middle of nowhere, watching a few sheep, staring apparently mentally asleep into the shimmering distance. 

Every ten minutes or so, a vehicle appears in the far distance, enlarging from the road mirage a mile away and passing in a flash of dust and wind. There’s little traffic up here – nowhere much to go and not much reason to go there. Sometimes the driver will wave; as often just pass in that fleeting moment, neither of us knowing why the hell the other is there, in this godforsaken wilderness. I don’t think I’d be here by choice: I have to travel this road, it’s the only one to Ethiopia that is viable. The others are even more madcap: hundreds of miles of soft sand and rock, emptiness extreme. Until a couple of years ago, this too was a gravel road, across what feels like half Africa, but is really only a mere 400-odd miles of inhospitable bush and desert. It’s just the heat, the desiccated wind and the relentless sun that make it so hostile. Now at least it’s a fine smooth sweeping road.

Half way, at Merille, a town that seems to have no reason to be, except perhaps there just needs to be some basic civilisation to break up the huge distance, I stop for sweet, milky chai, tasting of woodsmoke. I’m back at the Travellers Choice Hoteli, where I stopped six weeks ago. “So you are back!” exclaims the young server. “How was your safari?” Children peek in the door and wave from the street. This is a tribal place, mainly cattle herders, largely Samburu tribespeople, one of Kenya’s more colourful tribes, the sort many people imagine when they hear the word ‘Africa’, National Geographic people, all colour, beads and ethnic tradition. Sitting on the porch around my piki-piki are women with many large round shoulder-resting circles of multicoloured beads, their heads shaved, with beaded and buttoned caps. They have lots of shiny wrist and upper arm bangles and dress in wrapped cloths. Some of the young men are magnificent: beads, beads, beads, with fantastical headdresses created from all manner of coloured plastic, metal and beads. Most have earrings, many of them shaped like animals’ teeth, beaded and hung with glittering items, worn from the top of the ear, pointing outwards. I can’t help wondering how they sleep with them. Many older men have extended ear lobes from the weight of earrings I assume they wore when they too were young and dashing. A man sitting on the doorstep in front of where I am dozing a bit from sun and dry air, wears a jerkin from World Vision (the American version of Oxfam, sometimes known as Blurred Vision); across the back is the advice – heeded by next to no one here: ‘Healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies’. Huh. Beneath that he wears Manchester United strip, a jacket made of entirely manmade fabric, probably by a sweatshop in China; it’s shiny and cheap, probably cost a rip-off fortune for some supporter before it became ‘mtumba’ wear – ‘used and thrown’, similar to Ghana’s ‘Broni Wawo’, or ‘white man dead’ clothes, the western charity shop rejects that end up in bales, sold by middle men and retailed on every African street market. Under his mismatched outfit he wears the local wrap-around cloth, worn skirt-like, from which protrudes a large panga (machete) in a bright beaded scabbard. He wears heavy ear studs the size of small egg cups, across which I can read the words, ‘Al Abassa Stores’. Everyone uses plastic sandals these days, not even the old car tyre sandals of a few years ago. The People’s Republic of China can make the plastic ones more cheaply, even if it does local craftsmen out of their time-honoured work of recycling rubber tyres. Nobody interferes with my peace; a few men gather curiously to ask where I am from and where I am going, and why I’m doing it. They just want to know; no one wants anything from me but to satisfy their curiosity and then to wish me a safe journey. They are universally congenial, greet me and shake my hand. My mugs of sickly sweet but reviving tea cost me 20 pence each. I hand the server a filthy, flimsy, grease-infused, sellotaped, floppy note worth 40 pence, ‘fifty bob’ here. We shake hands again and I get back on the Mosquito, watched by thirty pairs of eyes amongst ethnic beads and coloured clothes, pangas and babies, cabbages and onions, and ride away, out of their lives in a few moments. 

Down the road I reconvene my daydreams and listen for the breakdown as I do so much. But Sam and Steve, who ‘have never met anyone like me before’ (apparently simple and friendly and meeting them as equals) have done a good job. Sam’s wife is in the final stages of pregnancy. “She might download today. Or tomorrow! If it is twins and one of them is a boy, I shall call it Jonathan after you, our dad!” Sam thinks it may be twins. “God may bless us doubly…” but the doctor thinks it’s only one. “I don’t like this scanning. The rays…” As such a fundamental Christian he has suspicions of science, preferring his certainty that god’s got it all worked out for him.


Nearing Archers Post another child waves from the roadside. He holds up a battered water bottle. It’s not uncommon for herdboys to beg for water from passing vehicles. I’ve only fifteen miles or so to go, so I stop and reach for my water bottles. The child must be about seven – African children are always smaller than western ones and he looks about five… The poor waif is skinny and dusty, dressed in tattered shorts, a cloth thrown over his shoulder. He’s probably been here with these few sheep and goats all day. There’s no habitation in sight, but they are often camouflaged by being made from the bush lands in which they sit. The boy is so shocked to have a mzungu stop that it takes moments to persuade him closer, fear all over his tiny face. I sign to him to give me his bottle, which he does, wide eyed, and I pour in some of the earth-flavoured tap water I have been drinking from Marsabit and pass it back. He is still apprehensive and just stands watching the white man on his motorbike, allowing just a tiny, timid wave as I ride away. He’ll probably never go to school – although it’s supposedly mandatory in Kenya, but these bush children slip through all those demographic nets. He’s just a small child, out there on his own. ‘It’s all they know’ is again the only explanation to what his life will be; he’ll herd the family sheep and goats, maybe promoted to donkeys then camels. He’ll wear the beads and headdresses, be a father by his late-teens, send out his sons to tend the sheep and goats, probably not live long, but it’ll be hard and deprived of all but the necessities to sustain a fairly short life. And so the cycle goes on in rural Africa, where people somehow eke a basic subsistence in the harshest of conditions.

It takes me until 4.00pm to reach Archers Post. By now I am cooked but the sun is getting a little more red, less of the searing brightness, more shadows and sculpting of the landscape. Archers Post is an outpost indeed, just some lock-up shops, some crude zinc and block homes, a few businesses – all here because of the national park around the town. Rich, fly-in tourists are secluded in lodges in the park, safe from local people, eating exotic food in their luxury ‘camp safaris’. Elephants wander through the town now and again, and there’s a lot of wildlife in the park. I went there with Rico back in 2001. But now I am heading back through the sand lanes to Rebecca’s women’s cooperative and it’s bandas (huts) and bar by the river. It’s six weeks or so since I was here and Rose, Rebecca’s assistant, remembers me. There aren’t that many white haired wazungu on motorbikes so I am something of a phenomenon. Sadly, Rebecca’s away for a few days, but I am made welcome and given a pleasant, quiet hut with a netted bed, a simple bathroom and a good meal. It’s the cool shower I need first though; a rest on the bed and then a couple of Tuskers. No need to feel guilty – or feel I should feel guilty – here. The river’s just a sluggish trickle now, dribbling through the desert in the gathering gloom. I am joined for supper by Carolyn, a lone traveller from Colorado, my age. She’s a bit disconcerted to be put at a table with me; she quickly admits she’s a loner, but we soon bond over our chapatis and VEGETABLES (!!!Wow, at last), as we agree about the joys of travelling as older people. She’s here to see the animals, excited by a cheetah she saw today; I’m here to meet the locals, more intrigued by the life of that roadside waif, but we make congenial supper company, as travellers passing like ships usually do, with the dark African night around us. She’s travelling – with her driver and guide – back to Nairobi tomorrow, and flying back to America tomorrow night. “For the first time I am embarrassed to be American! I saw a bumper sticker, ‘If you elect a clown, expect a circus’! Of course, it’s only one of many…” 


About a month ago, an American tourist was killed in a random terrorist attack in Nairobi. “Thousands of Americans cancelled their bookings! Thousands!” says Carolyn. “People are so frightened of Africa. But there’s nothing to be frightened of!” It’s only her second visit to the continent, the other being to South Africa, and she’s learned this already. 

“Yes,” I ask, “and how many people died in America that week from completely random mass shooting by some loony who bought an automatic gun in Walmart?” 

“But mass shootings aren’t NEWS any more! (Even though they happen on average more than one a day in the US. ‘Mass’ being four or more dead). The media in the west makes so much of one poor tourist who happened to be in the wrong place at the time. If it’d been a Kenyan, it probably wouldn’t have made the news, but one American… Oho, that’s NEWS!” 


It’s hot here. Even now at 9.30 I am sweating as I sit on my bed in the very silent night. How unlike the last time I was here, the night before New Year’s Eve, when the whole area shook to the beat and thump of the loudest music from a nearby bar until 4.00am. Now it is the peace of the African night, with the bush around me. Recently, elephants wandered past these bandas. That’s how I want to see my animals – not from a zebra-striped safari vehicle in radio contact with all the other safari cars, a cheetah in a circle of vehicles like a Tesco car park: just crossing the road or walking through the camp is much more compelling. 

I’m tired tonight. The heat and dry air take their toll on these long rides. I think I shall sleep well in my small round house tonight. Time to sleep…


I’d like to think I learned my lesson a few weeks ago, and am taking my journey at a much more leisurely, satisfying pace. My character is to be busy all the time; to feel unproductive if I am idle; that White Anglo Saxon Protestant guilt. Of course, on all my earlier journeys I was making a delicate balance between limited money and the wish to see as much as I could, so I used to push myself relentlessly. That really doesn’t apply any more, one more advantage of older travel. I’m relatively financially secure, I have plenty of time – another month still to travel – and I am learning that I enjoy it more when I am not weary and tired. Maybe it’s an advantage of age that we learn to slow down and contemplate a bit. And when you find a place as congenial to satisfying sleep, that’s worth appreciating! Last night, under just a sheet, I slept deeply as I always do in very hot African nights, and dream-filled hours, a rarity for me.


When in flood, the sluggish trickle before me as I drink my Tusker this evening, is a wild torrent 100 yards wide, difficult to imagine now, as large wader birds peck at the sand amongst the slow meanders. “Oh, that tree over there,” says Rose, pointing at a spindly palm on the opposite slope, “that tree is in the middle of the river!” But it’s one of those rivers that doesn’t really go anywhere, just filtering away into the vast deserts to the east. Many rivers in this region do that, start as springs and dissolve into thirsty distant lands. I can never forget the Okavango Delta in the far northern desiccation of Botswana, a huge, wide river that flowed freely and fast, long log canoes negotiating small rapids, when I slept beside it one March night – which has no outlet at all. It just fans out and disappears into the boundless, illimitable arid wastes of gigantic sandy Botswana. “It’s springs that keep this river flowing,” Rose says, “springs in the desert there,” pointing west into the setting sun, a brilliant ball of gold that is losing the intensity and burning heat of the day here in Archers Post.

Earlier, I walked upriver in the heat of the midday sun, but not far, there’s not a lot to see and it’s too hot and dry to be a pleasant stroll. “Watch out for crocodiles and snakes,” warned a couple of fellows sitting beneath a tree upriver. But what did I see? A scampering squirrel. I’ve no doubt the crocodiles have retreated, along with the elephants that Rose, watering the plants round the bar, tells me are to be seen on the opposite dusty bank sometimes. I’d like to be able to say I’d seen elephants as I drank my Tusker, but it’s very unlikely at this dry time; most of them go to the artificially filled water holes in the parks, where the tourists are. Here in Samburu, big animals are big currency.

I’d love to photograph the wonderful beaded finery of both men and women in this Samburu tribe, fascinating headdresses and bangles, bright colours and brilliant decorations. But their glamour and style has become a commercial opportunity, here where white tourists abound for the big game park that is not unlike a zoo, only with better, more authentic scenery. I have never paid for a photograph; all my portraits are freely given, reactions to me as a fellow human, not commercial deals. So, sadly, I will probably have no record of these spectacular styles. Some of the younger women are dazzling in their hundreds of bright necklace rings.


Meandering the single, scruffy street that is the main road through Archers Post gave me more opportunities for observation – of my fellow animals, the two-legged ones. Many of them want to speak with me, curiosity that I enjoy. Mangu, a lined chap of 72, ex-military, wanted to talk about Margaret Thatcher (Grrrrr!) and the Falklands’ War, Winston Churchill, Tony Blair and the Gulf War (Grrrr!). Alexander wanted to talk about his army pal from England and life as I had seen it in Ethiopia, as I drank chai in a small hoteli. Larry was drunk on some local spirit – friendly enough, but to be eventually rebuffed for my peace. Several men, lounging idly about in the back alleys of what must be a market sometime in the week, were volubly inebriated on local brew and probable lack of food. Alcohol is such a huge problem all over Africa; alcohol combined with lack of decent sustenance. It was only lunchtime; the sun was high and hot – but many were cheerfully drunk to the point of instability. They’d continue drinking this poison for several more hours, more garrulous and rambling, destroying their livers, drinking to an even earlier death. Meanwhile, thankfully, most of the women stay sober – and do all the work… Just as well someone does, for most of the men are useless.


Jessica joined me after supper; I’m the sole guest here tonight. It’s sobering to understand what people will do for a job in these countries. Jessica is a single mother of three, aged 20 down to 13. She has left her children alone in Natiri Corner, a dusty town I recollect from an earlier journey, when I wrote on my map, ‘very bad road!’. It was a short cut; one of those that turned out to be gruelling and broken, to take me back to Kitale. For Jessica has travelled from near Kitale on the promise of work here in hot, remote Archers Post. She sends the money home of course, but her children have to fend for themselves far away in Natiri. It’s an economic fact of East African life. Her eldest is in technical school, studying plumbing. “Well, Kenya desperately needs plumbers!” I joked. “I haven’t been in a bathroom in East Africa that hadn’t a plumbing problem!” But I doubt the technical school in Natiri Corner has the wherewithal for much practical training, and I am sure he learns plumbing from a book. 


The sun is now below the low western mountains, a dull fiery glow, on its way round the back of the planet to light us again tomorrow, beating down to heat my way south towards the highlands. There it’ll be blissfully cooler as I climb. The rise starts about fifty kilometres from this oven-parched town. Now the sky is utterly, crystal clear, a dome of translucent blue, with a tinge of metallic green that you only see in the African sunset. In an hour the stars will fill the eternal ultramarine vault with an unbelievable density of glittering galaxies and planets. If you haven’t seen the heavens from an African desert, where there’s no moisture to disguise the view outward to infinity, you can have no concept of the terrifying scale of the universe. I hope I remember the experience of sleeping on the sand in the middle of the Sahara as long as I live – the best days and nights of my life; and another reason for my warm friendship with Rico, for you cannot share such an experience without a long look at life and your own place in it. 


There’s a man in Archers Post who makes ends meet, and doubtless supports his family, with what’s probably his main material possession, an old, much-repaired petrol-driven pressure washer. He washed off the Mosquito for 100 bob (75 pence) for me before I rode out of town, back across the remaining desert lowlands. So, twenty minutes later, when the bike began to cough and misfire, it seemed reasonable to think that there was water in the petrol. I struggled on a few miles to Isiolo, the largest town in the area, where I drained the petrol filter. The problem persisted, so I searched for a mechanic for advice, finding a scruffy alley of mechanics’ shanties, where I sought out one of the older men – with the assumption that they know more and try less to impress. Alex, a quietly amicable fellow with a soggy handshake, diagnosed a failing spark plug. I replaced it with my spare and Alex even walked with me to a shop where I could buy another spare. Happily, all is now well.


From Isiolo, the peak of Mount Kenya comes into view right ahead, patches of tenacious glacial snow still visible on its almost 17,000 foot peak, despite being on the Equator. Soon the climb begins back to the highlands. What a joy it is to leave behind the pressed, lifeless air of Archers Post and Isiolo, the parching heat, the stifling atmosphere of the last few days. Slowly I climb back to the fresh, clean, sweet air of the mountains, almost smelling those glaciers, and really sensing the fresh pine woods, the green fields, the waving green barley and wheat, the grey-green rapeseed fields. In just 10 kilometres or less the entire character of the landscape changes, back to the refreshing heights of central Kenya, leaving behind, in an endless panorama, the limitless, dry expanses below. What a physical and mental relief. My heart warmed to all the new aromas as my body cooled back to comfort. 

Lucy and her sister, Isabella, welcomed me back for a couple of coffees and some carrot cake at the top of the hill, in the tranquil coffee house in its garden filled with geraniums, dahlias, sweet Williams, roses, lilies and fuscias like any English garden, but not in February. But coffee is forever spoiled for me by Ethiopia! I’ll never drink such delectable coffee again, unless I return. At breakfast this morning, instant coffee was proffered. I told them just to bring me Kenyan tea… 


I DO like Kenya and its charming people! I grow increasingly fond of it. As I checked into the hotel tonight, my pannier bag broke its strap. Within moments, the car park guard was advising me where to find a repairer, and a few minutes later, someone from reception was walking with me to a street a little way off where I met delightful Lucy and her father Joel, working magic with old bags and zips, canvas covers and containers at a pair of elderly sewing machines. Kenyans love to joke and have a lovely curiosity. Lucy adroitly stitched up my bag for £1.50. Of course, I mistakenly asked her to stitch it the wrong way up, so soon I was back, amidst much laughter to have her redo her work, the other way round. That done, I wondered if she could fit a new zip to my camera bag? “Bring it!” she suggested. Back I went, and in the next hour, with a lot of banter and cheer, she put a new zip into my bag. Anything can be mended in Africa. In Europe I’d have been told to throw away the bag and buy a new one.

Kenyans are so concerned for my comfort and enjoyment. Jessica, the new employee at Archers Post, to whom I had given a banknote – about £8 – to send home to her children, rang this evening to see how my journey had been. Was I relaxing? How had my ride been? It’s very engaging, this solicitude. Everyone greets me, from boda-boda boys to businessmen. There’s always a smile and a quip, a sense of equality despite our skin colours. I am instantly discerned of course, by all and sundry, but I never feel any antipathy, any hostility, just a sense of warm welcome, helped of course by the smile on my face. It’s a real gift this nation has, making me feel so accepted and sometimes even cherished. Another text came from Sam in Marsabit: ‘Hello dad, I hope you’re on the road with good health and your bike is working well. Cheers good times God bless you.’ 


Nanyuki is at 6300 feet or so, so it’s much cooler and more refreshing tonight. This town is used to wazungu, for it’s a major British army base town. They practice manoeuvres in the deserts and bush around here, big open spaces. They add a lot to the economy of the town – and that of Kenya. My hotel tonight is adequate, a room with two large beds, bargained down to my usual 2000 shilling budget (£15.30). I’ve a room on the front so the road may be a trifle noisy by morning. I’ll miss the heat of the desert, in which I always sleep so well. However, tomorrow, on the road, I won’t miss it at all! I’m so happy to have that long, hot desert road behind me. 


At 10.40, long after my bedtime, my phone vibrates and flashes its light by the bed. I use it for its torch and clock. A text message from Jessica: ‘May dear lord b with u as u retire to sleep miss u big!!’ 

And people still ask me, ‘aren’t you frightened, these places you go’? 


This is supposed to be Kenya’s highest town, but for a traveller who’s recently left Ethiopia, it no longer impresses in the same way. I’ve been here various times before, up in these rolling highlands, and today I had a calm, easy day and a very relaxed ride. Well, undemanding except for thirty hard kilometres of a rough short cut. That section gave me all the exercise I needed for the day, a rocky road across country to save tediously wending through the ugly, traffic filled town of Nyeri. 

I’m heading back to visit William at Kessup, on my way home to Kitale, just a couple of days’ ride away now, but sometimes my journey just doesn’t split into convenient segments, so today I stopped early up here. Tomorrow I want to stay at one of my favourite hotels, another old colonial relic, also high and cool, surrounded by the tranquil gardens so loved of the white men who came to Africa a century and more ago, and tried to create a bit of England in these elevated places on the Equator. I’m writing my journal tonight in the bar of the Thomson’s Falls Lodge, another anachronistic survival from that period. I stayed here once, in 2001, but it’s shot up out of my budget range (I can’t imagine why I was able to stay here before..?) and now charges £50 a night. So I rode away to town and found a quite adequate  rambling concrete hotel, where I can get a room for £8, but I will use the facilities of this amusing heirloom for my Tuskers and supper. The way I see it is that my eyes are shut when I’m in those cheap hotels asleep so, so long as I have a cleanish bed and a door I can lock, I’m fine there but may as well enjoy this sort of place while my eyes ARE open! Food is almost always reasonably priced by my European standards and tonight’s bed is very adequate, even if the hotel is a bit run down. And this old place, with its well-tended gardens running down to the Falls; baboons rather sinisterly treading the lawns, and its wood-lined old bar; its fake half-timbered exterior under the painted zinc roof sheets; its garnished pathways and faded glory, is really rather fun to enjoy for an hour or two. Sadly, it’s not warm enough to sit outside so I have to put up with the pounding bass beat from the room behind me and ubiquitous football league on screens that I have positioned to be out of sight, but I can still hear that ritual, aggressive chanting.


Traffic was light on my road today. When I went the other way a few weeks ago, it was racing and competing in the run up to the New Year holiday. It’s a fine ride, elevated, mountains all around on the horizons, including Mount Kenya, Africa’s second peak, and the Aberdares away to the south. 

Twenty kilometres south of Nanyuki I had been advised to turn right at the police station in a small town. I’m not sure that I took the correct short cut, but eventually the one I took got me to the road I needed. “Nineteen kilometres; safe road!” Joel had told me, having dissuaded me from taking the longer rough road as I’d ‘meet lions and bandits, Maasai with guns..!’. It was probably just prejudice, I reckon, and a road he’d never taken and never will. But the policeman at the other end of it, when I stopped to ask if that was its point of issue: a vague dusty track emerging from the bush, did agree that it was in very poor condition, so maybe I would not have appreciated 60 miles of that. As it was, I took the Solio Road, as I’d been told. But it wasn’t 19 kilometres the way I took it; more like 30-plus! Maybe I got it wrong. It’s not easy finding your way on these remote roads; there are few people to ask – at least, few who have any idea where the other end of a road actually goes. People just don’t move much out of their immediate area on this continent; they’ve no material reason to do so and probably can’t afford it anyway. I bounced and bashed over a good few miles of bad rocky road, getting all the exercise I needed to make me doze part of the afternoon away when I got to Nyahururu. To one side of my road was an efficient fence. In the distance I saw three rhinos; most of Kenya’s animals are behind fences these days, for their own protection and because they represent big tourist dollars. 

It’s high and cool, this road across the top of Kenya. From here I drop back into the Rift Valley and there’re no viable places to stay for the next 100 kilometres or so, so I decided, after a pot of masala tea (with ginger and spices, my favourite Kenyan beverage) and a plate of samosas in the Thomson’s Falls Lodge garden, served by waiters in white shirts and ties, to find a place in town. I’d been unable, despite fifteen minutes cheerful chatter with the Lodge manager, to persuade them that they could find me a room for less than a third their normal tariff! I soon found the Spanish Lodge in the town centre, a warren of rooms and floors with a bizarre external steel staircase. As I inspected and chose a room a heavy shower fell outside. “The first this year,” the pretty receptionist commented. It’s only the second time I have felt rain in 65 days, the other being brief showers near Nanyuki, that I left this morning, back at the end of the year. 

The Mosquito has to stand in the busy street tonight next to the hotel door, a practice I usually avoid, but there’s no yard or car park in this cheap town centre development. There’s a guard though, who assures me he’ll watch it through the night. The crumpled 100 bob (75p) note I pressed into his hand will probably provide for its safety until morning. 


It’s been that journey of multiple Equators again, for on yesterday and todays’ journeys I crossed the invisible line many times, some of them, as I’ve suspected before, being merely opportunistic commercial conveniences. But I am indeed on and around the middle of the globe; the sun itself tells me that as I ride along on my own shadow, even now, two months after the equinox. In the sky behind my hotel here at Kaptagat, I descry an early treat of the rains that will come within a few weeks; the clouds look heavy, but not yet weighty enough for rain. I’m high again and the climate here is that of the highlands, having dropped into and climbed out of the Great Rift Valley today, a westward journey that is distinguished by the enormous loss of altitude, down to the fiery temperatures of the valley bottom, then slowly back to the coniferous growth and cool of the other cheek of this vast fissure in the earth, clearly visible from the moon, that splits Africa from Jordan to Mozambique. I am happy to know the Rift Valley as well as I do now, one of the Earth’s most impressive geographical features. Once again, I used the dusty and rocky short cut across the bottom of the valley, fifteen rough miles criss-crossing the old colonial railway tracks, past small villages and shambas through bush country. People in these rural areas are so friendly, waving enthusiastically to see a mzungu on their remote trails. 


I do begin to wonder how much longer I will be able to ride these places, though. The time is coming for some serious assessment of the continued viability of my little Mosquito for further long journeys. I am losing confidence in it, and wonder if I have just pushed the small machine too far, these three winters? Despite the recent major rebuild – and, remember, I watched every bit of that, and while I may be a crap mechanic myself, I do have enough knowledge after 40 years’ of biking, to be able to tell when a job is done well. I believe Sam did an efficient job. However, the little engine is burning up to half a litre of oil a day, and this in an engine with an oil capacity of less than one litre… It is ailing. Also today, I was fortunate to spot the drive sprocket coming loose once again – the fourth time. Happily, I have left off the chain cover so I can watch the bolt spinning round, and saw, just in time, that despite a lock-washer and superglue on the threads, it was unwinding. Suzuki must have a better solution – but it’s not readily available here.

Well, it’s going to be time to consider my longer term plans anyway soon. For now, I am almost back at Kitale and have just a few shorter journeys planned for the remaining three and a half weeks of this safari. Maybe I’ll keep the Mosquito a bit longer so I can still visit my very valued friends in Kitale, even on shorter trips, and then maybe it’s time to consider further investment in wheels elsewhere? I turn 70 soon, but am still capable and interested to ride on these terrific journeys; travelling is so much part of what and whom I am after all. While I can still swing my leg over these tall bikes, and still put on my socks while standing up (as I do on principle, having once read that the first sign of old age is sitting down to put on your socks!), I want to continue with these minor adventures. This has been my eleventh African bike journey. 

A major review is due. The little Mosquito has performed valiantly, considering its size. It now has 95,000 kilometres on the clock and maybe it’s just asking too much to expect much more. I’d like some extra power, as this year’s journal must have witnessed! Well, to be pondered at leisure…


Last night’s hotel proved entirely adequate for its purpose: a night’s sleep in a comfortable, clean bed, with a part-functioning bathroom (it’s not reasonable to ask for more, just about anywhere on this continent, in my experience). It turned out that even breakfast was included. I elected to pay £11.50 instead of the £8 I could have paid, to get a bigger bed in a sunnier room. It was just fine. Eat your heart out, the old colonial Thomson’s Falls Lodge at £50! 

Tonight finds me at the Kaptagat Hotel again. I’ve stayed here several times and routed myself purposely to return. It’s another colonial relic set in delightful mature gardens. The rooms are faded at best; there’s no water during the day and the candlewick bedspreads suggest another era. My room is large, bay-windowed and rather charming in an old fashioned way. The floors are polished wood, the furniture was once quite good: solidly built hardwood; the bathroom with an ancient cast iron bath. It is peaceful, this Friday night, the bar just far enough away, with its habitual local drunks, who were probably here, imbibing injurious ‘KK’ (Kenya Kane spirit that should be banned on health grounds, also known as ‘kill me quick’) last time I stayed, a year ago. A bunch of semi-comatose men drunkenly watch a noisy TV, showing a silly remake of King Kong, with insultingly stereotypical scenes of half naked natives dancing round a fire; the sort of thoughtless characterisation that, to this day, portrays Africa as ‘backward’, made in a culture whose president calls Africa ‘shithole countries’. I prefer to bring my beer to my porch, gazing over the gardens, amused by the tall poinsettia bushes that remind me of the sorry Christmas pot plants of home. Here they grow into multi-flowered trees. I hope the cook will come up with some decent food (I visited the kitchen last year, but decided once was enough) and that Ellen, the friendly attendant, from whom I got a warm hug, will remember to light the log fire in my room. It does get cold up here at night, and the big cedar fire is a feature of my stays. There’s an inglenook in the bar big enough to park a large car, and with investment and better management – the eternal African problem – this could become a charming ‘niche’ hotel for rich tourists. I’m glad it hasn’t…


My health remains excellent on these journeys all over Africa. I’m sure stress is the major cause of ill health in our western lifestyles, and I don’t have much of that on these free and easy trips. I had that chest infection, now pretty well worked out. Most world travellers will tell stories of the runs – not me! I eat from street stalls, drink tap water, and even well water on occasion; I share utensils as is the fashion, eat from the same dishes with fingers, as in Ethiopia; take virtually no precautions beyond the obvious; drink local brews from old plastic containers. Last time I had diarrhoea was in Ghana about three years back, when I ate contaminated food at a big funeral. “We never eat at funerals,” said Perry. But I was enjoying the – very loud, actually – music, and replied, shouting, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve a stomach like stainless steel!” Perry was reluctant, but bowed to my confidence. Later I understood his concern, but, hah, I carry some pills for just this incidence. That night I dosed myself regularly – with no effect whatsoever. My disquieting ailment continued. It wasn’t until after twelve hours of ineffectual treatment that I noticed that my tablets were out of date by 10 years! The last time I had had reason to purchase medicine for my stomach was 12 years before, and I had been carrying them in my travel kit way beyond any effectiveness! More often, I suffer the opposite, from sitting all day on the bike and dehydration; it seems laxatives keep their efficiency better; mine have a price label in South African rand! 

Now I have a severe itch on my lower back. It’s just sweat rash from wearing an elasticated back support in the extreme heat. The support is very helpful on the long rides. This morning I found I had parked the Mosquito outside a pharmacy under the hotel overnight. I went in and asked for calamine lotion. “Oh, I can give you something much better!” exclaimed the shopkeeper, for despite a white jacket to inspire confidence, these are not pharmacists, just shop assistants. He proffered an ointment. In Africa, I always open the box and read the enclosed papers. The stuff he was offering would probably have flayed the skin off my back! It actually stated that this medicine was for treatment when all lesser preparations had failed. At least he didn’t offer the customary antibiotics… It’s so dangerous, playing with these western medicines without the necessary training and information. Old Akay, Wechiga and Perry’s mother, would have had an effective local remedy, cooked up in a pot from some leaves. I’d have been happy with that, but all that knowledge is being forgotten by the younger, ‘smarter’ and commercially manipulated generations. They buy white man’s potions, and the profits zip right back to laughing executives in multi-national corporations in Switzerland and India.


I got my fire. The two Ellens brought a fire lighter and sticks, piled on logs from my room and I am now soporific, after a surprisingly good dinner cooked over sticks behind the grim kitchen (chicken, with stew, rice and spinach) beside a wonderful flaming, aromatic blaze. It’s such a feature of this quaint old hotel, with its bungalow rooms and quiet garden. One of the greatest pleasures is to go to sleep with the ashes glowing in the bedroom fireplace and the gentle smell of the cedar and pine smoke curling around the warm room. Where in the world else would you get this delight, firelight flickering across the room, for £15 after a ride in scenery such as today’s? 

Life is good. 


Back to familiar Kessup, where William directs the guest house to my exact comforts. “I’ll go and see where the food is,” he says. It is three minutes past seven. “I ordered it for 7.00.” William likes his punctuality. “Oh, we learned this from the British! The British, they like time!” He still operates from his mean little shamba and his four cows, with the discipline he had when he was a police inspector in the Nairobi CID, a post he left, you may recollect, after a brutal machete attack that almost cost him his life and did cost him all his sense of security. He preferred life, living on a shoestring in a broken shack in Kessup.

I am ‘William’s Mzungu’ here. “Jonathan, you have given me such a good name in Kessup! Everyone knows you come to see me; it was very good what you said to Francis (the guest house owner), that you come to Lelin Campsite to see William! I was very happy!” It’s a pity it takes the endorsement of a white skin, but I reckon William is pretty well regarded round here anyway, for his steadfast, honourable qualities. He doesn’t like dishonesty in any form, even emotional and social. It’s difficult to see how he operated in a corrupt police force. He’s a decent man and well respected by his community. He leads a very simple life – I have no idea how he makes ends meet, except small gifts from me once or twice a year, the support of his daughter, studying nursing in Perth, and an occasional guiding job for a couple of guest houses. But I know he pretty much lives on the vegetables he grows and the milk of his cows. He looks smarter and more spruce and healthy since I saw him two months ago. I greeted him with the information. “I have left the cigarettes! I knew they were bad, and I didn’t need them. About a month and a half now.”

“Tomorrow, we will walk in the villages. Rael, she wants to make you lunch, and this person up here,” pointing over his shoulder up the hillside, where we sit drinking slightly warm beer at The Rock bar, “she wants you to photograph her children. Oh, people love your photographs! And I read your book. Haha! How it made me laugh! ‘William likes his punctuality’, you wrote, ‘we have 26 minutes left to drink our beer!’ Haha. I laughed!” 

“Oh, you have given me a great name in Kessup. They will all be pleased to see William’s Mzungu!”


It was  a light day’s riding. I came back to Kessup – all roads I know very well by now – by my favourite route, down that incredible staircase of a rocky, dirt road deep into the Rift Valley once again. How those engineers made a road down that steepest of escarpments, lined by towering cliffs, the extensive misty vistas of the Kerio Valley, an arm of the Rift, opening to the east, trails visible through the thorny bush far below, I cannot imagine. It is a feat.

The road has been hacked down the steep mountainsides, twisting this way and that, using whatever natural reductions in the sharp incline it can. It’s something over ten miles, warmth increasing as I ride downward, just to reach the valley floor and the trickle of river – at this season – with its sign about crocodile awareness. Then it’s a further 15 or 20 to the tar road that sweeps down from Kabarnet on the eastern flank of the valley and winds it’s way back up to Iten, via Kessup, on the western edge.

Equator notwithstanding, it’s altitude that makes the climate here. I awoke in Kaptagat to a cool, cloudy morning, cool enough to search out my fleece jerkin from my bag as I went to sit in the garden to order breakfast. The remnants of a light shower were visible on my bike seat and in the rich gardens. The rainy season is beginning to creep nearer. It’s the one mismatch between my desire to spend most of the winter out of the gloom and greyness of Devon, and the actuality: that the rains start in mid-March in East Africa. Otherwise, I’d stay away until the end of March, when the clocks change and spring is in the Devonian air. As it is, rainy weather takes a lot of the pleasure out of motorbike journeys, even in the warm rain of Africa.

Tonight there are rain clouds gathering above Kessup, blowing in from the great valley below. “It will only be a shower,” says William, who knows the weather of his home. “It might rain a few minutes; the rain here doesn’t come until the 10th to the 15th of March.” And, sure enough, it was but a brief shower that fell as we ate supper, little more than a refreshing smell of damp earth and a susurration of drops on the thatched roof of the shelter under which we sat. 


I was joined at breakfast, under another thatched palaver hut in Kaptagat gardens, by one of the many runners, for which this region is famous. For some reason, maybe not unconnected with the altitude, this county of Kenya is known for the prowess of its runners. Many of the world athletes train around here. Mike Keegan is a fellow I met in the same garden, at the same seat last year. He trains every morning in this harsh environment: “Sometimes we are taken down to the barrier (the one by the river in the valley bottom on that serpentine road) and run up to the top.” It must be a climb of four or five thousand feet. Mike now has a Turkish passport. “Do you run in their colours then?” I asked. “Yes, unless I am running in the Olympics or some of the other marathons, because I am sponsored by Nike, and must run in their colours.” Mike trains with the three-time marathon world champion, whose name, a little shamefacedly, I had to admit I didn’t know, and with the engaging Sir Mo, amongst other luminaries of the running world. “Excuse me, I must go and relax. This is a picture of my family in town,” offering a snapshot of a pretty young wife and two small girls. “Safe journey, I hope to see you next year!” It was not quite ten, and Mike, 33, had already run twenty five kilometres or more. I’d just about crawled from a comfortable bed into the consciousness of a new day that would bring me, on wheels, through the great valley once again. 


I’d texted William that I would arrive today, knowing that he would arrange my usual accommodation at the campsite: ‘my’ room, Mexico. He had done just that, ordering supper (for 7.00 on the dot) and assuring that all my preferences were complied with: “Did they bring the soft pillow? I told them to put the beer to cool, I know you like it ‘baridi’! I brought the green vegetables you like; Timothy will cook them. He’s the manager now. The one you didn’t like was sacked!” 

So we sat and caught up over a couple of bottles of Tusker at the bar across the road. The beer’s 20 bob cheaper there and William doesn’t like me to waste my money! Then we repaired to one of the thatched huts in the campsite, where William brought a small brazier of charcoal to keep me comfortable. Nothing is too much trouble for William, looking after his mzungu. Everything must be just the way I like it (as if I really cared!) and he must be a pain for the guest house management – but they also know that I would not be here if he didn’t have his scruffy little shamba next door. He’s a decent, kindly man. Okay, I pay the bills, but he’s one of those Africans that I know instinctively, would pay MY bills – if he had any money in his pocket. In these circumstances, I don’t feel exploited or resentful. A few pounds is worthwhile, for a warm friendship and a generous introduction to the entire community, for whom I am not just ‘William’s mzungu’, but theirs too after all these visits. 


A day spent ambling the dusty paths between the small fields and shambas of a Kenyan rural area, doesn’t sound very interesting, but to me, who enjoys meeting people and finding out how they live, it is satisfying, especially so when it’s the latest of several visits and I am meeting people, and recognising them, for another time. I’ve written it before: going back is important in Africa; it shows respect and confers status: it shows that these people, who generally have little respect shown them, are important and worthy of revisiting. William’s Mzungu also gains a lot of respect. So, of course, does William in his own community.

After a leisurely breakfast in the campsite gardens, gazing out over the enormous Kerio Valley below as I spooned down William’s homemade, delicious yoghurt, infused with blemishes of black ash from some medicinal tree, we set off down the hillsides to visit the old man who lives below my campsite room. Rongoe is 90 years old, a great age in this community. Not many make it to such a great age in Kenya, let alone in these rough, rural areas. But life in Kessup is not bad; the climate is somewhat temperate by Kenyan standards, the area is fertile, and it’s peaceful. With a large family to care for the occasional aged survivor, they may keep going a long time. Rongoe cannot walk any more, but lives in a small earth house in reasonable comfort (for the edges of poverty in rural Africa), looked after by grandchildren aplenty. I love to take portraits, and Kessup has provided a multitude, thanks to William’s sensitive knowledge of his community, and the almost legendary status of his mzungu guest, who brings back packs of photos after each visit. But old people in Africa, unused to cameras and now mobile phones, always pose rigidly in front of a camera. Maybe Rongoe remembers being photographed in a formal situation for a colonial work pass. A smile was definitely out of the question. 

Not so for so many others in Kessup as we wandered the quiet Sunday tracks and fields towards a terrace on which sits a homestead and bulsa bar where we are well known. Everyone smiled and greeted the visiting white man, some of them even remembering my name. William has done a great job in giving out the photos I have taken and in taking round his valuable possession: the books I have made from my trips, these past couple of years. 


It’s so gratifying to become known in such a place. I can feel the respect in which I am held for my return visits. I’m also becoming a bit of a legend for adapting to the ways of the village – not that difficult actually. I will drink bulsa – the maize and millet home brew beer, thick and fibrous, not very much to my taste, I admit, but I don’t have to imbibe it very often, so I can handle it. I’m respected for drinking it from an old plastic container. Why not? I told William that I was only concerned that the pot had been rinsed out, not for the fact that it was covered in writing about the cooking fat it had originally contained. Atanas’s father, Gold, an elder of the village, with whom I have taken bulsa before, won’t deign to drink from a ‘plastic’, demanding a mug, as he thinks befits his status. Atanas, a friend of William’s, was making big jokes at his absent father’s expense. Gold is in for a LOT of ribbing whenever he goes next for bulsa.


We clambered slowly back up the hillsides, greeting and shaking hands with everyone. William knows his community and is obviously liked here for his straightforward nature and integrity. We repaired to The Rock once again. Two beers each, even though it’s the mid-afternoon, and elsewhere beer time is 6.00 for me. In Kessup I just adapt to a very relaxed schedule. “We have 36 minutes more,” says William, and it’s now becoming a joke against himself. “We will leave at 4.00, then you can relax for one and a half, maybe two hours. I will organise your supper for 6.30!” And so he does, cracking his ‘British time’ whip back at the campsite so that ‘his’ mzungu can eat a little earlier to avoid the indigestion of last night.

There’s been a delightful breeze all day, enough to temper the searchlight heat of the equatorial sun a bit. As I write, at 8.30, the windows rattle and the wind is getting up. But it’s a bright, clear moonlit night now, no rain in sight. The huge valley spreads calmly thousands of feet below my window, up here on the edge of the escarpment. Down below, it is much hotter and more oppressive, bush lands sprawling to the northern horizon, for we are towards the southern end of the Kerio Valley. Elephants roam in the centre of my vast moonlit landscape. I know that but of course I can’t see such detail. Somewhere down there, the magic of storybook Africa is manifest under the sharp, white moonlight, the stars reaching in a vast arc overhead. It IS romantic to gaze from my window at this very small part of the wonder that is Africa. 

8.47, be blowed to William’s schedules and time keeping, my body and brain tell me it’s time to sleep! Me, who seldom sleeps before at least the midnight hour of any day at home; often in bed by nine here.  


“You are my guest. I have to make sure you are cum-fort-ible!” says William fifty times a day. He brings my enamel mug of milk fresh from his cows first thing to the guest house, before I am even up and about, orders my breakfast, arranges the menu for supper and so on. How the staff must curse him! Or maybe, as a long term neighbour, they just accept it and attempt to keep to his timetables? It’s amusing for me to watch!


I just came to bed. It’s 8.30 and a glorious, dazzling African night outside. We have sat at a table on the grass terrace, overlooking the fabulous valley, miles wide and now bathed in the brightest milky moonlight. I guess tomorrow is full moon, for the shining disc is just faintly elongated up there tonight. We sat as the sun set, somewhere behind the mountains above us, casting its pink glow on a few wispy clouds to the east, the bright circle of the moon already clearly visible in the crystal blue sky. Darkness fell slowly tonight, aided by the brilliance of the moon. The air was still and the evening silent, a magical end to an oppressive day, during which temperatures had soared under a spectacular arch of endless deep blue equatorial sky.  

There’s a brittle, deep, deep dark sky tonight, the stars like shining jewels. The moon is clear, all its features etched on its iridescent surface, for there’s no moisture in the air this evening to dim its brilliance. 


Once again William and I meandered the paths and tracks of the rural Kessup plateau, meeting many more cheerful inhabitants, welcomed universally, entertained and interviewed by all and sundry. Everyone has time here, unlike the way we behave in the sophisticated west: time to spend in valuable conversation and communication, exchanging information and opinion, learning and educating, broadening knowledge, enjoying companionship. It’s something we’ve lost in our ‘time’s money’ fixation: just that pleasure in social interaction, sitting on a rock, standing beneath the shady trees, just being together despite our differences. For half an hour or more I chatted in a circle of shady mature trees that form the local community meeting point. Six or seven village people gathered round to quiz me on life in Europe and my experiences of Ethiopia, a neighbour about whom most know almost nothing – (except perhaps an innate inherited prejudice of slight superiority!). One young man in particular, Gideon, a recent school leaver of 19 or 20 was very bright, asking and phrasing his questions with great intelligence. Very seldom do people in communities like this ever get a chance to listen first hand to a foreigner. They may see a few wazungu staying at the campsite or sailing remotely overhead on para-gliders – for this is an ‘adventure sports’ location – but those people almost never interact with the people; they fly in, soar about on their expensive devices, land and trample on people’s crops and are whisked back to their exclusive hotel on the clifftop. Not many wander into the ‘poor’, ‘undeveloped’ villages, possibly dismissing the people as mere rural peasants – but hidden here, un-dismissable, is so much human warmth, humour, kindness – and yes, intelligence and knowledge; hidden amongst these agrarian folk, scratching a living, through necessity not choice, in their shambas. Gideon’s father was a junior officer when William was in the Flying Squad in Nairobi, so he will have the opportunity of university. Some do. Parents, those educated themselves, will struggle to help their offspring through tertiary education, to move their families forward to better futures. Everywhere I have travelled on this continent there’s huge respect for education and teachers. It’s only in uneducated, illiterate families that this is allowed to waver. I’ve so much enjoyed getting to know one small area, just a mile or two in extent, so well; becoming familiar with, and to, many of the people, as “William’s Mzungu’.

“This is the poorest part of the villages,” said William as we walked towards the south of Kessup’s fertile plateau. True, the houses looked meagre, untidy and less orderly. “Why’s that? The soil looks the same..?”

“Education. Only education. The families here just don’t encourage their children.” I’ve developed another rule of thumb assessment of education levels in Kessup for myself; teeth. If teeth are stained and brown, as can be the case even in small children with their milk teeth, the family is often less educated. 

But I have met many charming people and children too. Children are excited to shake a mzungu’s hand, most probably for the first time. They ask for nothing; not a soul has demeaned themselves to beg for anything. There’s a self-respect and pride here which is entirely admirable, and a generosity to the stranger that is most engaging. It’s manifested as an openness and in the smiles and warmth of my welcome everywhere, into compounds, in the fields, in the small, simple houses. If anyone has anything: fresh avocados, bananas, a flask of tea – they will offer me sustenance and rest. My wanderings here help me to understand the lives of ordinary folk in Kenya and put my own journeys into perspective – let alone life in privileged Europe! 


Our days take on a certain pattern. I eat my breakfast, multiple omelettes and a flask of mixed tea, under the shade of a tree with the wonderful view before me. William has brought me fresh milk this morning. He will arrive with his invariable query about how was my night; we’ll sit a few minutes, William nursing his phone for its clock. At ten we leave on our wandering, down the dusty paths and rocks amongst shambas and small homesteads. At 1.30 we find ourselves in the same chairs as yesterday at The Rock bar. Two Tuskers and a relaxed chat until three, when, clock in hand, William tells me, “We can go now..?” Then he looks to his cows while I relax until six. Then he is in supper-controlling mode, making sure my supper is being cooked as I like it, and on time! A couple more Tuskers (in the evening I mix a bottle of light lager Tusker with a Guinness for a darker, more satisfying mix), and by eight we are ready to part, William perhaps to watch his beloved Manchester City on the satellite TV his daughter has subsidised, perhaps as a diversion from drinking beer – for which he has no money anyway, and me away to my room and diary writing and indigestion from a meat-heavy meal that makes me yearn for my home vegetarian diet. But I know the meat is fresh and natural: it was led, protesting, past my table as I ate breakfast! 

Accompanying the goat are delicious local potatoes fried whole and crispy and vegetables that William has arranged, that grow wild at this season. “Only ten bob!” he assures me. He eats the meat and potatoes, leaving the thick rich vegetables to me. “Why should I eat vegetables? I eat them all the time!” But it’s not often he can afford meat, so he takes advantage of my rather small appetite for the goat. Sometimes, he slips the remaining potatoes and meat into the cling film from one of the serving bowls – for the kitchen is 70 yards away across the gardens. “Breakfast!” he declares. “Why should they throw it away?” He’s kindly though; he always asks the serving girls if they have eaten, for commonly, what goes back to the kitchen in Africa, feeds the staff… Tonight, no left-overs for William. “Oh, I have my yoghurt, I will be very OK!”


Our third day didn’t much vary the programme. William, with his disciplined mind, likes a routine. And as for me, I’ll just adapt to pretty much anything so long as I am having an interesting time. Today we walked further, down to the edge of the escarpment, out below my window. The landscape rises in a series of large steps: a steep rise of thousands of feet up from the burning valley floor, then the Kessup plateau; next some gentle rises up to the main road, beyond which the ground rises more sharply until it meets the base of the cliffs that form the final thousand feet or so up to the highland plateau, that stretches all the way to Kitale and Uganda.

The day was very hot; this evening a light shower and drifting heavy clouds have ruined any hope of a repeat of the magnificent moonlit glamour of last evening. Tonight, we had to retreat into one of the shelters to eat our supper and drink our beers. The day, though, was sweltering, the sun beating down as we walked, me grateful for the slightest shade of trees. Down on the outer limit of the plateau, just before the land drops sharply away to the final huge slope to the valley floor, the land is dry and dusty, life harsh for the inhabitants who have their shambas so far from the water supply that drops from the top cliffs. Not much grows down there, except hardy maize. And the maize is planted on any patch of soil that can be garnered from the rocks and undergrowth. Small homes: rude shacks of zinc that must be like ovens, stand in the dust and rock on the inhospitable slopes. Around them, every tree has been sacrificed to firewood and to make way for maize. So the world gets hotter, the soils wash away and get exhausted, life gets harder. It’s the short-termism of African life; the constant need for immediate subsistence taking precedence over any long term plans – should there even be the consciousness of such ecological imperative, which is doubtful. It can be a strength of Africans, to live in the moment, to think of today, to deal with the immediate needs – but it’s a dire weakness that almost no one thinks of the future. It’s just not the mindset of most people on this continent, so preparation for future benefit is unknown – hence many of the famines that happen, when people eat their seed crops to survive the present emergency. I was SO impressed two years ago, when Alex, whom I hope to see in a week or so, told me that he and Precious had used the £35 or so that I gave them, when I was about to leave Uganda, to buy seed potatoes that enabled them to weather a terrible season, and even provide their neighbours with food when many were going hungry, having eaten their seed stores. But it takes the intelligence and wisdom of an Alex to think thus. That fortitude and foresight is uncommon. 


It’s showery tonight as I write. I can hear rain drumming lightly on the zinc roof of my room. I hope the rains won’t come early. It’s fun, though, to hear the croaking and singing of happy frogs after just a brief sprinkling of rain, just about enough to produce a bright rainbow above the parched Kerio Valley as the sun sank behind the confining cliff face above us. 

Apart from the fine view, one of the best things about the Lelin Campsite (where only once I saw anyone camping) is the peace and quiet to enjoy the gardens and the valley views. It’s so rare to have no amplified bad music and no roaring football league. Here we can sit and gaze and listen to the birds, or tonight the frogs. There are three blocks of rooms, four to a block, two upstairs opening onto the hill and with windows to the big valley, and two below, opening onto the earth terrace from which the valley drops away. It’s 200 metres from the road, so there is no disturbance. The only drawback is when other rooms in my block are occupied, for they are built of the commonest East African material: reinforced concrete frames – and no African closes a door he can slam, the crash resonating through the structure! But usually I am on my own, and can just listen to voices floating up from the fields and homesteads spread below, the lowing of cows and the fussing of goats. After all my visits, the management does me a deal of under £12 a night, and seem content to feed William on my ticket. My bill for four nights, four breakfasts, 17 bottles of beer and four dinners – bearing in mind that two of us eat and William takes away the remaining food (!) will be £100. If I DO come to Kenya next winter, even on a shorter trip, William really wants me to bring Rico and Adelight and family for a short holiday. We might well do that. It’s a lovely location.

So tomorrow back home to Kitale, about six thousand kilometres since I left. Just three weeks of my East African safari left – for now anyway. 


Sam the mechanic makes a gasket





Riding along this morning, a pretty tedious ride as I approached the sprawling capital, I found I had a tendency to be riding faster than usual – only a few kilometres per hour of course, for the Mosquito pretty well regulates itself at 60kph. ‘Why’m I speeding?’ I wondered. Then I realised it was because of an email that I unexpectedly fielded on my iPad over breakfast. There’s not been much connection for some days, but there was a brief contact in the broken hotel cafe where I stayed last night. And one email was from chattery Alice, who so cheered me when I needed it here in Addis three weeks ago. She was back, by coincidence, in Addis last night! What a nice surprise. We’ve enjoyed a lovely, cheerful evening together again. Funny how one can bond so happily, despite the difference of years. So many shared interests and ways of looking at the world. She’s off on a 30 hour bus ride at four in the morning, so maybe the next time we’ll meet will be in Devon. I do hope so. It was such fun to meet again, even just for a long evening. A warm reunion. 

“Alice Yap, I think it’s why I talk so much!”


After relaxing for a bit from my traffic-heavy ride back into the city, and taking the delightfully named ‘gingibel chai’ – ginger tea – prescribed by the lady who manages to day to day kitchen of this guest house, I rode out to find Eyob. You may remember, Eyob works for the only bike shop I found in the city – motorbikes are uncommon throughout Ethiopia; no boda-bodas here, just the bloody tuk-tuks. When I met Eyob, he took me to his home for coffee and was so very helpful. I need a few jobs on the Mosquito, particularly the fitting of an in-line petrol filter against all the water and dirt that is being poured into my tank with all the black market petrol. It will be done tomorrow. I need trouble-free riding now to get me back across the first half of the northern Kenyan deserts to Marsabit, where Sam, the mechanic, can give it a little more attention. 

Addis holds few attractions and I hope to spend just a couple of days getting small chores achieved: a new zip on my camera bag, maybe some stitching to my panniers, the housekeeping required on long journeys and usually available in the big cities.

Then, a cheerful evening with young Alice, supper and beers and chatter: the pleasure of bonding with someone else with so many similar enthusiasms, despite the huge difference in age (40 years and a day!) and background. 


Addis Ababa isn’t a city I much like, I have decided. I shall head southwards tomorrow, having little to keep me here. This morning I took the Mosquito down Bole Road and Eyob and his mechanic cleaned the carburettor and fitted an in-line filter in my petrol pipe. I hope this will solve the coughing and spluttering – of the bike that is; I am beginning to control my own coughing and spluttering by drinking a lot of gingibel chai and taking big, deep breaths. Alice is a nurse, and that was her useful advice. It appears to be working.

We fixed the bike on the pavement on busy Bole Road, rinsing petrol all over the carb, puddling the paving stones, disrupting the pedestrians. It seems to be just the way it is in Addis.


I introduced two young Danes; their six weeks’ in Ethiopia started a few days ago, to the joys of the juice stalls. I am in awe of the half litres of avocado juice, freshly crushed and served with half a lime. Then my only task was to try to repair my small camera shoulder bag. I found a whole series of leather workshops around the local ‘stadium’ area, but no one could replace the zip in less than a couple of days. In the end, I settled for a helpful young worker who stitched part of the bag shut. I’ll see if I can get a repair in Kenya or down the road. I hang the camera bag over my shoulder all day on the bike, so I need to keep the dust out. 


Fighting off pickpockets is a trial in this city. I am shocked by the number of boys and youths sniffing glue (mixed, I am told, with diesel). It is a serious city centre problem. Thousands of them, sitting on most traffic islands, hunting for petty crime opportunities on every pathway. One of them tried to pick my pocket this afternoon. As it happened, I was carrying a couple of carved spoons I had bought in an ‘antique’ shop. A quick upthrust not only threw his hand from my pocket but dashed his crushed plastic water bottle, with glue and green gunk in the base, into the road. “You’re not even a good pickpocket!” I shouted angrily, turning heads. On one hand, of course, I have to feel terribly sorry for them – street children who have either run away or, in these countries, whose parents have died or abandoned them. On the other hand, they are a bad nuisance to everyone in the streets, causing trouble everywhere all day long. They prey on tourists by choice, thinking we will be easy quarry. But we all know all the ruses and techniques… We pass this information between us. They have not a single chance in life, and will probably be dead quite soon. It’s one of those terribly hard facts of life on this continent. Short lives, utterly wasted. 


In every hotel in which I have stayed; every cafe and restaurant in which I have eaten; most buildings I have entered, TVs play constantly, absolutely constantly. It’s either football – mainly from England, occasionally from Europe – or it is **** CNN. Who is interested in constant trivial ‘news’ from America? This is AFRICA. It has not the slightest relevance to anyone that this week is about to be the coldest in a decade in USA. Who cares? Who cares about the arsehole president and his childish megalomania? This ‘shithole’ country is so proud that they have never been colonised. Well, look behind you, Ethiopia. You are being colonised day by day by trite shite, like the rest of us. I’ve had to move into the chilly bar yard this evening to write. I can stand no more of the fluting tones of the announcer, the jingles, the endless upbeat cheery announcement of death and disasters that take on an anodyne meaninglessness. 

Oh, I think I’ll go to bed! I HATE TV, especially wall to wall shite like this. 

Time to move south…


It was at the Bekele Mola Hotel in Ziway that I left my passport four weeks ago tonight. I’m glad that time is behind me and my journey back on form. I reread that part of my journal as I relaxed after my ride this afternoon. I really did suffer an uncommon crisis of confidence.


The first 15 miles of today’s ride were ghastly, but not nearly as bad as the last 45 miles of my entry to Addis. I found a much preferable, minor road south and only joined the main highway tonight, 300 metres up the road. I came by a lesser used route, roughly parallel but thirty miles west. Once I left the extended, traffic-clogged tentacles of the capital, it was a quiet, rather undistinguished ride over rolling, parched hills to the town of Butajira, and then a left turn for the last 45 kilometres back to the main north/ south highway which I must follow now back to Kenya. I am determined to limit my days to less than 200 kilometres whenever I can on this southward journey. 

The mosques are groaning around me now. The south becomes increasingly Moslem. It’s sunset, time for the evening moan. It should be atmospheric – indeed, in some Islamic countries, this is a mighty, nearly joyous scream to the skies. In much of Islamic Africa though, it seems miserable and depressing, a tuneless, joyless dirge into the dust-filled sunsets and dawns. It’s Friday of course, so it persists longer. Mind you, the Orthodox incantations tomorrow and Sunday can be even less musical! Amplification has done no favours for religion in these parts. Get some better muezzins and train your priests if you must – or just give me anonymous, cheerful – brief – church bells… 

The road, 100 metres away, is busy with heavy traffic, at almost 7pm. Maybe that’s the weekend effect? Often, when I sit in another vehicle, or watch the streets from a beer bar in cities, I wonder at my gall in contemplating riding in this traffic. It seems just crazed and ill-disciplined. Oddly, though, once I am a combatant, weaving and ducking through the astonishing machinations of thousands of battling vehicles – including those horse carts, flocks of sheep, obstinate donkeys, plodding cows, tuk-tuks, bicycles, taxis, minibuses, buses – not to even mention the mad, blind pedestrians, in this twelfth most populous nation of the world – and I become part of it all, able, thanks to my better training in observation and manoeuvrability, to twist and turn, spurt and dive, accelerate and wheedle – and it all becomes some sort of a crazy game; just all of us trying to make progress against all odds. With this country doubling its population about every twenty years, how will the straining infrastructure cope? Well, I guess it won’t: it’ll just get progressively worse until it all stops. By then, we will have polluted the planet so much it probably won’t matter any more…


There’s a middle-aged American woman staying at the guest house in Addis. She seems to spend her time on her computer in the shaded bar yard; even her morning exercise appeared to be walking circles around the yard, not the streets outside. When I arrived the other afternoon, she greeted me and asked from where I was coming. “Oh, I’ve been riding all over the north!” I replied.

“Did you see any unrest..?” she enquired anxiously. Unrest? No, not a thing; not a waver, not a flicker. All I saw was a lot of friendly people, the vast majority of whom held me in much respect and poured out goodwill. This morning, hearing I was venturing out into the world out there, she warned me apprehensively to be very careful. “I had an alert from the American Embassy, not to leave Addis unless necessary. It’s crazy out there…” 

Where do they get this nonsense? The country is actually remarkably stable just now. Here and there, there will be minor tribal conflicts that flare up – this is Africa, divided tribe from tribe – but there is no ‘craziness’ almost anywhere in Ethiopia at present. In fact, I’d choose Addis if I wanted to tell visitors to be careful… This sort of ‘advice’ – the British Foreign Office produces the same nonsense frequently – is like Health and Safety gone mad. You issue a warning so that there will be no blame, no criticism, no redress. ‘Peanut butter: Warning, may contain nuts’, and coffee, ‘Caution, contents may be hot’. It’s not helpful; it’s downright irresponsible. Apart from anything else, any participants in conflict will do all they can to avoid involving foreigners, they know the penalties are so severe. “Did you see any unrest..?” It’s a country twice the size of France. There may be an odd conflict down in the deep desert on the Somali or Eritrean frontiers maybe – but they are as far from that woman in Addis as, well, at least the distance from Calais to Marseilles! I think part of the present petrol crisis may have been caused by ‘unrest’ in one of those FAR distant areas, and Moyale border, where I am headed, was closed for a week or so just before I arrived but Ethiopia, for the time being anyway, is not a hotbed of internecine war!

I’ve a very itchy back tonight. Wonder what got in? The perils of travel! Much more troubling than so called ‘unrest’! Haha. Maybe the miscellaneous block of soap I found by the guest house sink, with which I washed my rotating tee shirt last evening (I have two tee shirts, blue and red, two pants and two socks that rotate day by day). 


Supper came. Fish cutlet: it’s on every invariable menu: every menu the same. Fish cutlet is pieces of breaded fish, fried and served with fried potatoes. With it comes a side dish of burning red chilli sauce. It’s enough to make me dream of bloody frozen peas…


My mood’s drooping again tonight. NOISE. Why was I so stupid, not to see at 3.00, when I stopped, that being in the centre of Awassa, by the lake and all the bars, would be the noisiest place in East Africa on Saturday night? I could have paid a pound over my limit and had the best room of my trip, but I was swayed by the fact that the owner of the guest house I selected was a charming middle aged Belgian woman, with Ethiopian husband, speaking English. Bibi and I have been talking interestingly in the guest house yard and she too complains of the noise: a relatively new phenomenon with which she is battling. She lives right here in the compound amongst all the new, very noisy beer bars… “And tomorrow we will get the churches!” warns Bibi. “They start at 6.30, and it will be four hours! I hope you can sleep?” Another ear plug night…


That damned chain sprocket flew off again – in the middle of nowhere on a very busy, unpleasant main road. This time, a young man gave me the sprocket, that he’d seen fly across the road, the bolt was soon found, but the washer was lost. Again, it was a case of flagging down a pick up, loading the Mosquito in the back and being carried to the next town, some ten or twelve miles on. But this wasn’t a pleasant Ethiopian experience. I was pestered relentlessly by unfriendly people demanding money. Not the people in the car, who seemed to be a bunch of uninterested businessmen, who didn’t even get out of the car, (I was in the back, sitting on the floor with my bike) leaving it all to their driver, but the assembled people who did no more than lift the bike into the car, a moment’s work. Then, in the unfortunately, but, it seemed to me aptly, named town of Arsii, the men who helped lift it out – a task taking about one minute, argued for money until I had to resort to the two English words that seem to be understood across the world (probably thanks to American TV). Oddly enough, the two young mechanics, who WERE helpful and friendly, although I did the work myself, using their spanners and their washers, refused any recompense with a friendly handshake and big smiles, confounding me completely. 


I didn’t enjoy any aspect of today’s ride, except its relative shortness, at only 100 kilometres. I am back in the Rift Valley now, still of course at about 1500-1600 metres above sea level, but the landscape is dry as a bone, with the few lakes dotted about. They aren’t particularly attractive though, being often alkaline or brackish. Most of them are infected with bilharzia. The valley is about fifty miles wide, dusty, desiccated and  empty. Vast herds of cattle were herded across the road in many places, hazards that slow the heavy, badly driven traffic even more. Dust circling high above, every shred of any grass grazed to oblivion. African aspirations, across the whole continent are for more and more cattle and babies – probably the two most environmentally damaging aspects imaginable for our straining planet. Abandon all hope…

Before my sprocket incident, I had considered investigating one of the lakes; even maybe staying by one tonight – despite their somewhat unattractive setting and what I read on the internet: ‘at the weekend, all Addis Ababa and their boom-boxes head for the resort hotels and prices rise by at least 20%’.  By the time I’d sorted the bike again, I’d sort of lost the will to travel today, and finding Awassa only 25 kilometres further, I opted to stay here tonight. I stayed here a month ago, stopping in that slightly run down guest house owned by Defige, who’d studied in Dublin. It was quieter by his main road than down here close to the lakeside, with pounding music from seedy bars. I wandered the lake shore in the late afternoon with many inhabitants. Hundreds of gangly, sinister cranes stalk the path and shore, almost tame and well fed by rubbish and visitors, great ugly birds over a metre high with hideous wattles and long angry beaks. The shores of the lake are set with green reed beds, quite attractive if you mentally fade out the thousands of floating plastic, single-use water bottles. 

I ate a disgusting meal, in the dark; maybe it was as well that I couldn’t see what I was eating. It was fish goulash, one of the fifteen items on every invariable Ethiopian menu. It’s just bits of fish deep fried in a red chilli sauce, served with bad chips and revoltingly greasy fried white cabbage, a gesture at vegetables. I’m honestly not enjoying the food. On the whole, I dislike meat, so choose to avoid it when I can, leaving me with oily, greasy fish and hot pepper – another food flavour I could do without. I’ve given up on cold, clammy dishcloth as much as possible and just crave some simple, clean vegetable flavours. Many people extol the virtues of Ethiopian cuisine. The expensive restaurant in Nairobi, I will grant, has very good Ethiopian food; not many places here have.


Bibi, the Belgian owner, whose husband is Ethiopian, is a bio-engineer and knows quite a lot of the continent. She’s been in the habit of coming and going between Awassa and Belgium: “We need the hard cash to run the car and so on!” But at present she is trying a sabbatical of a year, living here and adapting to Ethiopian life. “Then we’ll see..!” Echoing to some extent the fears of Daniel from Zurich, she tells me of the fomenting of unrest in some of the ethnic communities. “Especially, the Tigrayans in the north, they are manipulating the tribes. The new prime minister is doing well, but I fear his time will be too short. There may be trouble ahead, if the tribes split. Awassa was always considered the regional capital for the people round here, but factions are making problems. If they insist on separation, there may be trouble.” It’s roughly what Daniel feared when he said he thought there may be ethnic conflict in the future on the scale of Rwanda if tribal jealousies get out of hand.

Thank goodness a conversation over a beer in the yard with Bibi cheered what had become a rather bad day, one way and another. Often my mood sinks through being alone so much, separated from the people around me by the language barrier and insufficient cultural understanding. Days like this are hard, and I am happy I made the instinctive decision to stay near someone of my own culture, despite the appalling noise everywhere tonight. Chatting amicably with my hostess has restored my interest in things around me. People who choose a foreign partner, by the chances that life throws up, tend to have wider views of the life around them, a positive, adaptable approach to change and a healthy interest in what makes people do as they do. By sharing observations, we widen our own understanding of just where I am, here in Ethiopia. I know a lot more about it now, after five weeks, but am still often at sea. “They are so proud of their independence, their lack of colonisation. But they’ve lost out by that too. They have become much more separated from the rest of the world, and the cultural exchange has been so much less than in most of Africa. It’s positive in giving a strong cultural identity, but difficult when you cut yourself off from the world.” 

But at least most Ethiopians don’t understand the trivia spewing endlessly from CNN’s gaping, ever-open eye on its own over-blown, tiny bit of the western world. They can be grateful for that filter at least.


A day of rest. I AM trying to pace this journey back, and I need to gird up for tomorrow’s ride, which, riding north, was the worst of all. The Zebra Guest House was a good place to just stop for the day, take a brief ride out, wash clothes, catch up with life and drink buna. 

I’ll be heartily glad to get away from the hassles of purchasing petrol. This crisis has been going on for over two months I think, not that anyone can actually explain why it’s happening or what it’s about: something to do with the suppliers pressurising the government to raise the price of fuel – it’s much cheaper here than any surrounding country. But putting up that price will create massive inflation, in everything. This being Africa, the people have just found their own ways round the inconvenience. Spotting a huge line of tuk-tuks and motorbikes at a petrol station, I just pulled innocently in, and was once again hustled to the front of the queue, tolerated by the police on duty and my tank expensively filled. I have NO idea what the rate per litre was, but I know my Mosquito hadn’t used as much as 190 Birr (£5.58), but I’m not going to argue in front of 200 waiting customers, who’ve probably been there all day! Who cares? I have my tank filled once more, another 250-300 kilometres’ range, and I’m now about 500 from Kenyan petrol and still have my jerrycan strapped to the bike, another 150 kilometres. So I am almost home…

I regret that I felt not an iota of guilt as my tank was filled in front of all those people. “I have to get to Moyale!” I told the policeman loudly. That impresses everyone, and Ethiopians are very kindly towards ferengis. Most of them even smiled as I told the attendant just to fill right up. As a tourist, I believe I have priority to supplies, according to one fellow I met as I am almost out of the country, who asked where my authority letter from the national tourist office is… Huh.


Yoftahe is a charming fellow running a small motorbike repair business at the street side, but with a degree in Governance and Development Studies. He speaks rather good English. I stopped to get my tyres checked, and to see if I could buy a few spare bolts and washers in case the problem continues with my sprocket. I also bought a piece of second hand petrol pipe, since I spot that Eyob’s mechanic has used too short a piece and bent the fuel filter almost to breaking point. If it breaks in the middle of nowhere, I want to be prepared. In the morning, he’ll help me find bolts and washers. An educated, cultured man, he has to earn a living any way he can, and probably jobs in governance and development studies are rarities in Awassa. More African waste.


The sermonising from the huge nearby church began in the early hours and droned on and on. Thank god for ear plugs. “I’m bad tempered,” admitted Bibi as I drank my first buna. “Why do they amplify this noise? Everyone’s sitting INSIDE the church anyway!” A brief ride out round the end of the lake, on a new road that I think leads to the airport, was the total of my travelling today. By the time I came back the drone was beginning again, by now in competition with incredible NOISE from all quarters. No one appears to notice: they drink contentedly six feet in front of pounding, beating speakers, while I am reduced in moments to a screaming, foul-mouthed wretch. I’m writing as I wait for food in a vibrating bar, desperate to down my food and get out. And I chose the quietest – fifteen minutes ago. African hearing is SO much more tolerant than mine. Some fellow a few feet away is even talking on his phone! Ethiopian music is horribly, endlessly repetitive too, always following the same beat… At least it IS Ethiopian I suppose. AAAARRRGGGHHHHH!!!!!! SHUT UP!!!! Just let me get my bloody food and go! 

Another personal first: I just ate a burger! Never before in Africa did I sink so low. Actually, it was rather a good burger – made here in the bar, I don’t doubt: I am sitting right by a booth hung with raw carcasses. I’ve not bonded that well with the fifteen available Ethiopian dishes on the whole. I’m not fond of meat or red chilli sauce, or fresh green chillies, the basis of just about everything. And the dishcloth (sorry again, Rico!) leaves me very uninspired with its sogginess, sourness and coldness. But a BURGER..? Oh well, I just needed a change! At least I can be pretty sure I didn’t just ingest antibiotics and hormones – just cow.


Things are seldom as bad when you accept the reality and face down the anxious anticipation. So it was with the road today. I’ve been apprehensive since I rode this way five weeks ago – it was at Agere Maryam that I started my Ethiopian journey – and it was this road that exhausted me as I fought with what I now appreciate was probably heavy pre-Ethiopian Christmas traffic. Today, the road was just as bad but the light traffic made it just like any other long trail ride over appalling rock and gravel, without the competitive element that so stressed – and on occasion, frightened me on the ride northwards. I’m a little physically weary tonight – it’s hard exercise – but I’m not in the funk that I was five weeks ago.


It was eleven before I got on the road today. First I had a leisurely buna and pancake and fruit breakfast with Bibi for pleasant company and conversation, joined by Frenchman, Gérald. Ethiopia seems to appeal to slightly older, more experienced travellers. Gérald extends a warm welcome to Burgundy. I hope I’ll take him up on that. 

From Bibi’s friendly guest house, I rode to see Yoftahe to obtain a pocketful of spare bolts and washers for my front chain sprocket – emergency supplies in case it flies off again in the middle of nowhere – like the northern Kenyan desert. I’ve left off the guard so I can (somewhat obsessively, it must be admitted), watch the bolt go round. 

At last I was on the road south, fighting my way through racing, clapped out buses; wandering donkeys; carts pulled laboriously by threadbare, rib-ridged old horses and mules; meandering tuk-tuks; mad pedestrians and heavily-laden, badly driven minibuses. It was many miles before the traffic thinned as I climbed into more handsome scenery with trees and views of green valleys. In the last quarter of my 190 kilometre ride, the people changed. It happens this way in Africa; tribal boundaries are quite distinct, even now. It becomes apparent that the population suddenly operates to different norms. There’s seldom any physical, topographic difference, just subtly the mood alters. It’s odd, my instinct tells me as I ride that I have moved into another region. Here it happened that quite suddenly, in a matter of a handful of miles, everyone – but everyone – began to wave at me and flash huge white smiles. It’s my main memory, my first impression of Ethiopia five weeks ago – waving, friendly people. And it’s the same area. I didn’t notice it weakening as I rode northwards out of this region, but five weeks ago my mood was deteriorating into tiredness and gloom and self-doubt about there. These last few miles were a delight: the road was now smooth and new, the audience very friendly, the scenery filled with trees. I entered Agere Maryam with a bit of a smile this time.


(Oh dear, I just ordered tibs and dishcloth again! Why bother to ask for a menu when I actually don’t know what half the items are and no one can explain? All I DO know is that whatever I order, it will be meat, chilli pepper and injera… 20 minutes later: it was goat tonight, a little tastier but still bloody meat and chilli and grease… I begin to fantasise about some green vegetables. It’s been WEEKS.)


When I stayed here before, I was green to Ethiopia, at a loss entirely, floundering. Now I have five weeks’ experience of the country and know how to find places to sleep a lot more comfortable than the first hotel, where I was woken at dawn by the watchman and asked, “You go..?” 

“No. I don’t bloody well go! It’s DARK!” I remember replying. Irritated, lost and unconfident. Well, maybe I am a little more used to the oddities of Ethiopian life now and can read the cultural signs better. Tonight I found a pleasant place to sleep in minutes, a hotel so new that not much has broken yet. The lavatory doesn’t flush and the seat’s not fixed to the pan – and never will be now. In due course, it’ll snap in half and be thrown away and there just won’t be a seat. Those are the only faults so far, so they won’t need to start building the replacement just yet. There’s no electricity except the roaring generator, but I think that’s town-wide, rather than the newness of the hotel. With luck, the generator will go off before too long. The room rate tonight is just £8.80, very good value, until the place begins to disintegrate like all the others. It won’t take long. The plumbing will go first.


At least 50 or 100 times a day, I am told that my headlight is on. Today, it was at least 100 times. Drivers flash their lights, pedestrians wobble their hands, bike riders overtake, pointing desperately, tuk-tuk curtains flap as drivers gesticulate from the interior. Of course, the very fact that they are all so concerned, means that I have been seen. Job done. One policeman, somewhat more officious than the thousands I have passed on the roads, told me, as I entered Lalibela, that my light was lit. “Yes, I know! It’s so the idiot pedestrians SEE me! And it’s law in Europe.” (Well, some places it is). He informed me it is against the law to drive with lights on in Ethiopia, a rule I have studiously ignored for 3500 kilometres, except turning them off for about 300 yards entering Lalibela. I think you are only allowed to show lights in warning of obstacles ahead – or doubtless, if you are an important government official. At dusk, all over Africa, the first one to light his lights is a sissy! I believe drivers think that perhaps they are wasting fuel by being visible.


I’ve probably two more rides to get to the border. I could do it in one: the road’s good, but it’s beyond my self-imposed 200 kilometres, and I have a few days left on my visa. I’ll make it two shorter days. 

It’s 8.00 now. I am tired from many miles of hard trail riding. My little Mosquito deals well with rugged roads. It is tall and light, and I can stand comfortably, transferring the weight to the front of the bike. I have big bars, courtesy of Rico and one of his old BMWs, and can easily grip the sides of the wide, comfortable single seat with the insides of my knees. Thus can I keep up a good speed as I bounce and bump, in a pother of dust, over these terrible roads. The Mosquito is under-powered, but a good, light bike for an old codger on African roads. I’m not unpleasantly weary tonight, ready for an early sleep and a reasonably short day tomorrow.


One TV screen in this outdoor bar shows CNN trivia whenever the pounding generator comes on; in the other corner a basketball game in which Boston plays Oklahoma. There’s an over-excited, breathless commentary in Amharic, by the same actor who dubs the football games, with many long expressions of excitement: “Oooooooooohhhhh!!!!”. This country is so  proud never to have been colonised. Sorry Ethiopia, but it’s happening now. You are walking into this pernicious cultural greyness with the rest of the world. 


One thing I will do before leaving Agere Maryam, is go back to the first buna stall in that basic hotel. It was the first, and the best buna of Ethiopia. Coffee will be the biggest regret I leave behind me. It really IS very special here at its origin.


Determined to pace myself on this journey south, I stopped at 1.00. I knew from the ride north that there is nowhere to sleep after Yabello except a small hotel in the scruffy, ill-named blink-and-you-miss-it town of Mega. The choices here are more plentiful, but equally grim. There’s something I really dislike about provision for tourists in this country. We are seen as complete cash cows, to be ripped off if possible. I am talking here of the tourism business, not individual Ethiopians. In the one hotel that is favoured by tour groups in this backwater town, the management are grasping and rude, asking me US$44 (£36) – in dollars, which always makes my argumentative hackles rise – for a dingy room with a grim bathroom and worn furnishings and decor. I soon found a preferable place for less than £9! It has the same dingy decor, the same half-functioning bathroom, the drain smell that I now associate with Ethiopia, a better garden and friendlier staff. It’s a pity this country cannot respect its tourists more, since there’s a big drive to encourage tourism. They won’t do it by ripping us off… The receptionist was rude to me, on spotting me this evening, for not going back and cancelling the half-reservation I had made, but needing more money, I left to find a cash machine. Instead, I found several better alternative rooms (one of which was only £4.40 but I couldn’t face the bathroom!). “Sorry, but you were ripping me off for substandard accommodation, I didn’t see the need to return and tell you. I found better for a quarter your price!” The trouble is, many of the guided tourists just book these things on the horrid booking .com, think it’s cheap and have no idea what they are signing up for. Once paid, the hotel doesn’t much care what the customer thinks: there’ll be another dupe along soon.


The scenery got bigger and more expansive as I dropped towards the big deserts I have to cross in the next few days. Many people waved frantically and I pretended not to see just how many waves turned into outstretched palms. It’s a problem in the more uneducated parts of this country: the white man is perceived as being the bringer of aid. To make ourselves feel better, to assuage our own guilt at the imbalance of the economics of the world, we hand out money in one form or another – almost always entailed in some way that brings employment and commercial opportunities for the donor nation, of course, but to the rural peasant, they see white people handing things out, apparently for free. Of course, we are then seen as rich givers and there’s a sense of entitlement that builds up for the local people. White skin equals money or material handouts. Oddly enough, it’s much less prevalent in the old British African colonies than in the others. Happily, it will be less of a hassle in Kenya tomorrow. It’s something I really want to get away from. Every second hand here is stretched in supplication. Fortunately, the others are generally stretched in greeting.

Villages were frequent, although towns of any size are rare down here in lower, rural Ethiopia. The villages are mean affairs of basic manyattas, rounded homes of sticks and grass, many of them sadly draped in unsightly black plastic sheeting. There are children everywhere, a new Ethiopian born every twelve seconds. How can one get across the message that this poverty is so largely self-inflicted, and perhaps you wouldn’t need to beg constantly from the passing white man if you didn’t have five or more children, while having no job and no livelihood? It’s utterly unsustainable. These rural people may have a couple of cows, access to an increasingly small and infertile patch of dust, no education, and many children. Not surprising then that begging is seen as an option… 


I ride in almost constant trepidation of mechanical breakdown, listening to my engine, watching that bolt fly round in the centre of my chain sprocket, waiting for the noises that presage disaster. When it happens, I don’t panic, but wonder how I will deal with the new problem. Riding along this morning, my engine died. ‘Now what..?’ I thought. A quick analysis suggested it wasn’t electrical. Maybe fuel? But there was plenty. What..? Then I saw that my jerrycan had slipped from its moorings on the left rear foot peg, held by elastics. On some speed bumps it had dropped down and pushed down the side stand. The side stand has an engine cut out switch that stops the engine if the stand is down while the bike’s in gear. If only all my mechanical problems can be so logically simple to solve!


Wandering along the road after a rest, I saw a large, very heavily laden BMW 1200 outside another cheap hotel. Daniel is Swiss, again a little older than the average traveller in much of Africa, and riding from Switzerland to South Africa. It’s been good to have a bit of company for a couple of hours. We may meet again in the next days, although with a machine with six times the power of mine, his pace will be somewhat different. But we are riding the same route for the next 1000 kilometres – there is no other. 

How is it in a country in which one third apparently don’t eat even the minimum calories recommended, that almost every meal is of meat and injera? The keeping of so many cattle is denuding the environment even more. Growing vegetables would be so beneficial. But hardly a vegetable, beyond the long-suffering onion, the green and red chilli, and oily white cabbage, exists in this country. 


How did I ever ride the last two days’ roads in one day five weeks ago, on top, what’s more, of two long desert rides of 250 kilometres each? I’m not surprised I exhausted myself physically. Crossing a border is an emotionally stressful event too – adapting, learning, observing; lost in a new culture, a different language and even script, new currency, new ways. I was more stupid even than I thought. Today I rode just 200 kilometres in the hot sun; used to the culture and ways of the country – yet I am still weary now at 4.00, having reached familiar Kenya once again. 

And, oh, the joy of a clean bathroom, one of the first in five weeks! Sanitation and plumbing in Ethiopia are as bad as I have found anywhere. For the first time, I can even flush paper down the pan, instead of depositing it in a nasty plastic bin in the corner of the uncleaned bathroom. Oh joy!


The time had come to leave Ethiopia. I felt my mood slipping, worn down by the constant evidence of self-inflicted poverty, of endless begging, useless men sitting drinking beer while their poor, abused, sexually mutilated women forever lug twenty litre canisters of water laboriously home, accompanied by girls as small as eight or ten, bent double, staggering under the weight of water for their useless men. The boys play table football and ping pong and never carry more than a herding stick or unused shovel as the bowed women and girls struggle by. The only difference between the donkeys and the women is that the donkeys carry two water containers at a time, while the women are probably berated for carrying only one. The men sit in the shade by the road, self-important and inexcusably lazy. Give women the power on this continent and things would change so fast the rest of the world wouldn’t keep up.

I’d become weary of lack of privacy, interruption and the assumed right to butt in because you don’t speak their language and they have six words of yours; I am sick of smelly bathrooms – another one ponged the night away in my room last night, and the acrid stench was the result of no more than lack of attention to sanitation and cleanliness. I was bored with the over-charging for everything whenever I got near to group tourists; of the invariable diet of meat – in a country on the verge of poverty, while meat is environmentally the most damaging, expensive commodity. “No vegetables available!” laughed a young man helping me to try to find a meatless breakfast. “Yes, that’s because you don’t grow any,” I retorted. There’s land and water, but instead the culture raises millions of cows, dust rising in vast clouds as they trample the dry land, completely stripped of vegetation. I was irritable about my inability to communicate, even in sign language; by lack of infrastructure – that was lacking because no one cares, not because it’s unaffordable; of no bloody petrol for weeks, filthy bathrooms, trillions of discarded plastic bottles; of seeing piles of firewood and charcoal for sale along my road, while as far as the horizon the stripped, barren land contains no tree higher than ten feet. There’s another mouth to feed, another’ baby to rear, every twelve seconds. When this landscape runs out of its last useful natural resource, they’ll move on and strip the next bit. The church does nothing, Islam less; gives no leadership on this disastrous population explosion, sitting complacently on their hands, counting more adherents, not admitting the problem, the insurmountable problem, the problem that will drag all of us into its pit and holocaust. 

Yes, leaving was timely. But of course, I have had some delights and seen some wonders too. Life can’t always be reflecting on the gloom and disaster that Africa can be. I’ve met charming educated Ethiopians who didn’t beg and wheedle, but have been amongst the most kindly, generous people I have met on the continent; well informed, urbane, concerned – just ‘kind’ – there’s no word that describes them better. I’ve seen topographical wonders that were like lightning bolts: those moments of theatrical reveals of the Blue Nile Valley, the northern mountains from the high highlands, the ride up from Debre Tabor, the ride down to Woldiya, both over 3500 metres, higher than I ever rode before.

I met kind people like Biniyam, who helped when my Mosquito threw its sprocket; Eyob, who took me home for a coffee ceremony; Abdulrahman, who is still texting to find out how my cough fares: ‘How are you today.. how was ur wellness? I’m gonna miss u’; ‘I hope ur natural remedies was working faster.. Where are u today? When you live Ethiopia I hope u will meet me on email’. There was Daniel, and his mother Aster with whom I spent a terrific day in Bahar Dar, ending in that traditional music bar doing the shoulder dancing – or a pathetic parody of it at least. The charming Tedla Siyoum, managing director of the hotel chain who arranged the return of my passport and drank beer with Alice and I in his own restaurant amongst the flash wedding guests. There have been many, whose main wish was that I enjoy my time in their remarkable country.

And it IS remarkable, however jaundiced I feel right now about grim bathrooms and upturned hands of the uneducated majority. The culture of Ethiopia is as old and stable and mighty as any in Europe. I believe Ethiopia was writing before Europe; it certainly developed its religion and its extraordinary structures around the time we were building cathedrals. It’s a country rightly proud of thousands of years of independence – although that’s also excluded it from the contemporary  ‘global village’ too. It’s a country with a fabulous history and myths and legends galore. It’s the home of the Queen of Sheba, the supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant, Moses’ tablets. It’s had intimate connections with the fount of Christianity since before most Europeans. It’s at a crossroads of the world’s two largest religions; had Jewish connections since they were new and modern; kings and emperors since time immemorial. It has its own tradition of art and painting; mysterious stele and is truly the ‘cradle of mankind’, for here were discovered the earliest evidence for our human species. 

It’s the home of coffee and knows it. Without any doubt, it has the best coffee I ever tasted, and probably will ever taste. 

And… it has the most beautiful women in Africa and hence arguably in my opinion, the world!


So I leave in some confusion. My body is certainly happy to be back in the – almost western by comparison – infrastructure of Kenya: clean bathrooms, comforts, vegetables, ease of communication, being able to pull up to the first pump in Kenya and fill up. No more dishcloth and meat and chilli pepper. No more intrusion. No more blank reactions to my gesticulated needs. No more begging.

But I’ll miss the intellectual stimulation of some of the culture. That doesn’t exist in Kenya. I’ll miss the kindness and courtesy, graciousness and gentleness, politeness and warmth of the educated Ethiopians, truly the gentlepeople of Africa.


Now I am back in Moyale, an unpretty place of small attraction, a border town with all the lack of depth and transitoriness that that implies. It’s a largely Moslem town, but by Ethiopian standards, well kept and calm. I found a big – clean! – hotel: the one I rejected five weeks ago as being too close to the giant new mosque (next door!) but selected today on the promise of the clean bathroom, even if I did get a 240 volt belt off the dangerous shower head – but this is East Africa and they’re all lethal! I’ve a decent room on the fourth floor – I always climb high, away from the bar and other guests slamming their doors. I’ve a small balcony looking over the town and catching the western rays of the setting sun, setting over the vast desert that I have to set out to begin to cross tomorrow. 

I feel content to have faced my fear of the sheer scale of the country I just left; to have worked through my loss of confidence; to have seen 3758 kilometres (2350 miles) of it from the back of my little Mosquito, despite my initial fears; to have stories to tell of the small part I have seen. I know I chickened out of seeing so much more: the distant deserts, the Bale Mountains, Axum in the far north, many, many places that the country has to offer. It was just too large to contemplate on my 200ccs of ‘power’. My time was short and I got a flavour of the country. I left with just four days of my visa unexpired, so I couldn’t have gone much further anyway. But part of me feels a little guilty not to have challenged myself even more than I did! That’s the way I am… 


I have back my original papers and logbook, that have been stored in filing cabinets at the border posts. It was all most efficient and done in 45 minutes. The border seems to have remained calm since the troubles shortly before I crossed on January 2nd. Many burned out shops and buildings on the Ethiopian side testify to the violence that still sometimes erupts in these out of the way borders, far from the seats of government, where the populous takes politics, envy and jealousies into their own hands. This is Africa – volatile, tribally partial, thoughtless and apt to fight before negotiating. It’s been at the back of my mind all the way south: how would I cope if the border trouble erupted again? There’s only this one viable crossing for me: the other one is remote, hundreds of miles of soft sand, gravel and extreme loneliness – and probably beyond me on my own… Still, that ‘what if’ didn’t happen – and if it had, I’d have had a story to tell as I found a way out of it. It always works that way! 

Just remember those statistics at the end of my Ethiopian travels: the median age in that country is 17.9 years old; 64% of the nation is aged less than 25 years; less than 3% reaches my age; a new Ethiopian is born every 12 seconds; 9078 babies are born every day but only 1936 people die; basic literacy is 49% and there’s one doctor for every 40,000 people. It’s currently the 12th largest country in the world by population, and about 20th from the bottom of the poverty league table. And according to at least two of the informed opinions I gleaned, it has a racial bomb just waiting for the right conditions to detonate. 

These are such depressing figures that they can’t help but temper my enthusiasm for the depth of culture and the kindliest of people, or for the delectable buna and the ravishingly good looking women…

Well, I got in and got out without mishap. I didn’t run into a donkey, horse, mule, sheep, goat, camel, dog, pedestrian, tuk-tuk or ditch. The Mosquito stayed rubber side down and apart from a long, spluttering chest infection – still hanging on a bit, but reducing day by day – I feel I opened my eyes a bit to my 23rd country in Africa: a completely unique, individual one at that. 

Tonight I can’t even celebrate with a Tusker. This Moslem town is ‘dry’. Bah.

Just that big desert to cross now.


Mad dogs and Englishmen… But I had no choice, the desert must be crossed. 237 kilometres, a bit past my self-imposed limit, but again no choice. I’m back in Marsabit, a dire town where you have to search for a beer and feel guilty for even wanting one in this Islamic misery. Well, actually, I don’t really feel very guilty – maybe I feel I am expected to feel guilty, a different matter altogether! 

Five and a half hours, four and three quarters of them in the saddle, the sun burning down, the air parched and harsh, the temperature I guess in the high 30s, my face drying mile by mile, my mind reduced to the mathematics of my journey: ‘24kms, one tenth gone… 61kms, a quarter gone, 81kms a third…’ and so on, watching the kilometre posts slowly, oh so slowly, count down my journey.

At Turbi, a one-camel town in the middle of nowhere about half way, with a view of nothing but dust and scrub, a few huts and manyattas, a ‘hoteli’ and a couple of meagre shops selling plastic shoes, out of date biscuits and candles, I stopped for reviving sweet, milky chai. Doubtless, I was the most exciting thing to happen all day, maybe all week, in Turbi, where I guarantee not much happens as the camels plod by and the rocks burn just a fraction more every day. Two mugs of chai from a battered Chinese flask, in a chipped mug, is living it up in Turbi.

But a couple of hundred human beings are confined in this empty place, a few shacks, the rounded, stick and grass-built manyattas covered in bits of lorry canvas, tablecloths, plastic sacks and scavenged fabrics – home. Whenever I stop in such places I pause to wonder about life. I cannot imagine being condemned to live in this hinterland of human existence for even a couple of days, let alone a lifetime, short though it may be. Doing nothing the whole day long – the women and donkeys bring the water the seven kilometres from the well, I wouldn’t even have that task to achieve. No intellectual stimulation; an unchanging view of rock and scrub; no ambitions; no achievement beyond survival. “It’s all they know,” is the usual, somewhat demeaning, explanation. Yes, but therefore life here is no different for the donkeys and camels, for it’s all THEY know too, survival until an early, overworked death; but we imbue the human condition with so much more… Surely life must be more than just existence? I can comprehend their lives no more than they can imagine mine: riding my motorbike through their lives, come and gone in a moment. Maybe that’s why the mosques are there, even in these crude habitations, to give a spurious meaning to life, a promise of something higher, more meaningful, a spiritual life beyond this grim existence. But I see all that as a lie: I have only THIS chance and I have to use it creatively – as I see it. Thank goodness I have no belief in reincarnation: I might be condemned to come back as a camel herder in the empty deserts of Turbi, my mobile phone, football league and the screeching mosque my only diversions…

The nearest doctor is at least 75 miles away, probably more – it’s more likely there’s a nurse maybe; the nearest hospital much more. Get an infection, you probably die. Childbirth is as dangerous – and common – as it was in the Middle Ages. There’s no old age pension, no unemployment benefit; the imam is probably the best educated person around, peddling advice 1400 years out of date and selling the ridiculous comfort that it’ll all be better when you’re dead! When you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s camel milk, some meat and imported maize meal for sustenance. There can’t be a vegetable out here: nothing grows in this dust and if it does, it’s eaten by the voracious goats and camels. It’s a miracle that the huge herds of camels, goats and sheep, that whip up soaring, swirling clouds of dust, find anything to live on.

No, philosophise how I will, I’ll never understand what makes that life bearable. ‘It’s all they know’, but I know more. I am SO privileged, have so many choices, so many opportunities, am so fortunate. I do well to remember that sometimes in our incredibly unequal world. Travelling in Africa is a humbling experience.


The wind rose in the afternoon, bone dry and hot – and inevitably, on my little Mosquito, a headwind. Dust devil whirlwinds rose red and high into the vast blue sky. The road swept across the hugeness, a smooth stripe in the tumbled rock, dust, struggling thorn trees and dry-as-dust grasses. The whirlwinds of dust and a few lithe, elegant gazelles are the only movement. Such delicacy and lightness of movement as these little gazelles leap away, impossibly light as the air. I’d love to touch one, their are so silkily sleek and shapely. Here and there enormous herds “of camels, haughty and despising, lollop the roadsides, heads aloof. A few ostriches flop about the rocks and dust, bustles a-flutter in disgust at the whirring piki-piki. Otherwise it’s all desiccated and lifeless, just rocks burning infinitesimally slowly in the searing sun.  

As the dusty tornadoes rose into the endless blue sky, I hoped they’d miss me. They are filled with swirling grit and sandpaper my face if I happen to converge with one as it whips and spins across my road. I chuckled to remember the one that engulfed me as I rode past the municipal tip of a small South African town a few trips back, leaving me wobbling through a tower of twisting, gyrating plastic and paper, eggshells and soap wrappers. 


The journey went on and on, the kilometre posts providing my only reward. Marsabit was slowly approaching. I knew where I’d stay; I was here some weeks ago and did a good deal with Saleem, manager of a clean hotel. As I’ve written before, going back in Africa is important. I was confident of a good welcome from Saleem, and another  decent room – in fact, I have the same one. 

If I sleep as well tonight as last, I’ll be content. I slept under just a sheet with the balcony door open to the night. It’s a bit cooler in Marsabit with its own microclimate caused by the localised mountain range on which it sits.


Since Addis Ababa, I have been saying to myself that ‘it’ll be sorted once I get to Marsabit’. You may remember that it was here that I left off my oil filler cap, and subsequently met Sam, acknowledged as the best mechanic in town. Before I rested – I knew that if I rested, it’d be the day done – I phoned Sam and told him I was coming right round to see him. He and his brother, Steve, have been mending motorbikes in Marsabit since 1992. Firm Christians (in a Moslem town) they moved here from the middle of Kenya. They’ve an oily, dusty yard on the edge of town, but they KNOW piki-piki maintenance. Sam actually owns a bike the same as mine – something of a rarity in Kenya. I rode right round there and the brothers immediately started to diagnose the small problems I have: the engine is burning oil a bit, the drive sprocket, the dirt in the fuel tank – a few things that need putting right. I’ve left the Mosquito in their care tonight (I didn’t want to have to deliver it early tomorrow!) and they’ll remove the head and check the valves, rings and so forth. No doubt, by the time I walk there tomorrow, my Mosquito will be in its component parts. Some of the problems, says Sam, will be caused by the bad fuel in Ethiopia. “We’ve seen it many times! The fuel in Ethiopia is very bad; a lot of paraffin mixed in, and dirt!” I have every confidence that these two brothers, guided by God in their deep belief, will do the very best they can to help me on the rest of my rugged journey. I am so fortunate to meet such decent, kind, friendly people on my African journeys.

And what a delight it is to be able to communicate with just about everyone, share a joke, an opinion, some news and views. I suppose that’s what I’ve loved about my African travels these past seven winters: I travel to meet people, find out what makes them the way they are, what they think, what they do, how they live. For all that I need language and communication. In so much of eastern, southern and west Africa, I have just that and can share my journeys with so many diverse, interesting people.