EAST AFRICA SAFARI 2017 – Fifteen

DAY 81 MONDAY 27th FEBRUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

The circle complete, I am back to Kitale and cheerful welcomes from Adelight, and also Rose, Bo and Shamilla, for this is their half term. I went away as they went to school and came back for their holiday, a bonus for me with all these happy girls round the house.

The other reason for coming back now is that tonight I am attempting to join a meeting in Boston, USA with my colleagues and clients for the forthcoming project in Tampa, Florida – the pirate theatre that I have already conceived, in what seems right now to be another life. Little is further from my thoughts than ‘immersive’ pirate theatres. I trust I can busk my way through a meeting. At least I know the clients and they have faith in me, so if I sound less than perky on the subject I shall expect them to forgive me. I am, after all, in Darkest Africa so far as most Americans are concerned. By good foresight I did bring along a copy of the theatre plan I drew in early December and left in my bag here in Kitale. Of course, the trouble with such a meeting is that the clients are flying up from Florida to Boston and starting the meeting around one o’clock, already nine in my evening, and continuing until five, my one in the morning! Considering that the last two evenings I went to bed at 8.30 I may not be at my best… The wifi here at Rico and Adelight’s house is no better than it was in December (non-existent most of the time) so we have been to town to fire up the wifi on her phone so that I can Skype my colleagues (probably from my bed!).

Later: a total failure! Having spent £8 to add wifi time to Adelight’s tablet phone, we couldn’t charge up the battery because the whole area has been under a total power cut since afternoon! So much for my attempts and plans. I managed a short call to them on my cheap East African phone, to greet them and apologise at least. Africa, outside large cities, is not conducive to international business, something we now take for granted in Europe. It’s not so long ago, well within my travelling life, that I had NO contact with home, except the postal service for weeks and even months on end while I travelled. Why, even as late as 1990, my brother Wechiga made his first international telephone call – with a Bakelite handset from a wooden booth in the main Navrongo post office – to my mother in England. I well remember his excitement. Now we speak every couple of weeks, he from his fields in northern Ghana to my living room in Harberton.

*

It was a short ride home today, just two and a half hours or so, all on roads I have ridden several times already. I’m very fortunate to have a ‘home base’ for these journeys, as I did these past four years in South Africa. I hope to have another brief trip to Uganda this week, and then the little blue bike and some of my luggage will be stored in Rico’s garage until I can use it again, all being well next British winter.

*

My usual luck held and I arrived at home just a few minutes before the first shower of this showery day. There was noisy rain on the roof of my chalet room at Kessup last night, rattling on the steel sheets. The rainy season is now on its way. Through the afternoon and evening we have had several heavy showers. Time for me to leave.

*

I have been known to expound on my opinion that religion is business in Africa. (Just now and again!). For the past three days, just for fun, I have been recording some of the bizarre array of churches I have passed. In the little notebook I keep in my riding jacket pocket, I jotted this laughable collection:

Repentance and Holiness Church
Repent and Healing Ministries
Repentance Church
Full Gospel Church
Redeemed Gospel Church
African Gospel Church
All Nations Gospel Church
Gospel of Peace Ministry
Universal Gospel Ministries
Faith in International Missions Church
Word of Faith Church
Word of Life Christian Fellowship Church
Christian Fellowship Foundation Church
Full Pentecostal Church
Pentecostal Assemblies of God
United Pentecostal Evangelical Church
New Pentecostal Praiseland Church
Light of the World Church
All Nations Lighthouse Church
Testament Church of God
New Testament Church of God
Jesus Disciples Tabernacle International Ministry
Faithful Worshipper Ministries
King Jesus Faith Ministry
Jesus Apostolic Church
Apostolic Faith Church
Life if Risen Christ Church
Path of Christ Mission
Christus Church
Christ the Shepherd Church
Christian Outreach Mission Church
King’s Outreach Church
Reformed Church of East Africa
Seventh Day Adventists
Inland Church of Africa
House of Praise and Happy Church (!)
Rejoice Baptist Church
Love Christ Ministries and Church
Growth Church
Deliverance Church
Christ for All People Church
Christian Hope Church
Fountain of Hope Church
Miracle Life Church
Believers’ Mission Church
Voice of God Believers’ Ministry
Calvary Celebration Church
Grace of Calvary Church
New Calvary Church

Then, of course, you have the Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Salvation Army, the barking Jehovah’s Witnesses and all the others, so-called established churches. I even spotted a Coptic Health Centre somewhere on my road. Even the Quakers are here.

Every small village, however mean – and they usually are – has a rows of churches along its roads, always the biggest, best constructed buildings in the village, used for a few hours of singing and nonsense and collecting money that people cannot afford, to construct buildings that are used once a week, while the populous live in squalor. I know the argument that it gives people hope but surely there are more practical ways to help than this crazy proliferation of small, greedy, money-making enterprises fleecing the uneducated? Many of these ‘churches’ obtain sponsorship, many from crazed religiously narrow-minded Americans, and so-called, self created ‘pastors’ fleece their earnest, desperate flocks with their specious promises. And that’s not to mention the religious ‘crusades’ and rallies orchestrated by exploitative American evangelists…

Sorry, it makes me angry as a compassionate being to see this abuse of trust. I’m afraid Africa makes me into an increasingly militant atheist. Reading ‘The God Delusion’ while working in right wing Florida (of all places) put a lot into perspective for me. End of subject – for now.

DAY 82 TUESDAY 28th FEBRUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

February’s gone so I can think about going home now! The worst month of winter is done.

This was a day of mere relaxation, not much achieved except arranging a ticket with one of the small planes that fly from Kitale to Nairobi for next week. There are several companies in competition now so the prices have plummeted to £48. For one who loves flying in small planes that’s a price well worth paying for a trip over Kenya. I flew in a six-seater, back in 2001, from the northwest of Kenya to Nairobi and it was one of the finest flights I ever took, soaring over the Rift Valley and the hills and forests that I have ridden through these past weeks.

Oh, I did fix the lavatory cistern! So I did achieve something today, taking it to pieces and replacing the defective diaphragm. ‘Lavatory Cisterns of the World I have repaired’, would be a sizeable volume, with all the broken ones I have encountered in a large percentage of the cheap hotels in which I have stayed in my aggregate eleven years of travelling out of Britain.

I have very much enjoyed Adelight’s company. She is a very warm, capable woman full of good humour. She makes a very equal partner for Rico, in a way that I think is probably rare in African/ European couples. It’s been so good to make a new friend in her, to bond and to be more than just a friend of her husband’s. We’ve become comfortable together very easily. I have warm invitations to return next Christmas. All being well, perhaps I shall indeed. Plus, of course, there are all the girls who seem to accept me easily too. A charming family – and, as I wrote some weeks ago, a family in the truest sense, considering the disparate relationships of their blood lines. Happy times. Maybe next Christmas the family will travel up to Turkanaland in the far north, the wild hinterlands of Kenya.

DAY 83 WEDNESDAY 1st MARCH 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

The sun is setting palely over Uganda from my vantage point on the cliff at the Coffeeland Resort, to which I have returned, after six wandering weeks, to an excited welcome from young Alex, the charming manager. Precious doesn’t seem to be here this evening. Alex tells me that in my absence another mzungu on a motorbike pulled into the guest house and he rushed up and hugged him, calling to Precious, “Jonathan has returned! Jonathan is back!” Edward, a Scottish biker, was somewhat surprised by his warm welcome! But he stayed three days, so he must have enjoyed the friendly personal attention too!

*

Discussing the filth of the deep dust road from Kitale via Suam border that I took last time and was reluctant to face again, Adelight told me there was another small border to the south of Kitale that would mean I didn’t have to go through the very busy border post on the main East African Highway, my other option. “It’s tar!” she said. Well, the first bit was..! But I still had to suffer 70kms of very rough track that frequently dwindled to little more than a village path that made me doubt I was on an international route. Asking often if I was still on the road, it seemed I was.

At last I arrived at the Kenya border…

…Where I had to do some fast talking. I’m an old hand at border crossings – fortunately – and I know the last thing I must do is appear irritated or dubious about the whole ridiculous process, for those processes justify the status of the officials. And status, for officials, is all.

Apparently, to take a vehicle out of Kenya, I am supposed to lodge the log book at the customs office in Eldoret (my least favourite Kenyan city) and obtain a customs document like a carnet…

I have just ridden 7000 kilometres through four countries! When I left Kenya through Suam border some weeks ago I asked if I needed papers for the bike. “No,” said a bemused Customs man, “you can go…” So I did. At length, William, customs officer today, (…long experience, very important, been doing it a long time, official regulations, for my protection, penalty of ignoring the regulations etc etc…) told me my obligations, and how I was contravening the Kenyan law. I kept a straight face throughout, of course. I mean, I’ve passed through eight border checks in the last few weeks. As a concession to not keeping my log book there at the border, he made a photocopy and wrote over the form that he had retained a copy. This, of course, took time and a lot of smiling faces from me and prolific grovelling thanks for his help, boosting his status! Then it transpired that I had no entry stamp for Kenya in my passport. Well, I knew that, as I actually went back and asked the immigration officer last week when I came in from Tanzania if I didn’t need one. “No, you are done. You can go!” he assured me. So I did. More sweet talking to get round THAT one. Anyhow, I got an exit stamp for this border, so now the missing one won’t figure.

At last I rode through the pedestrian gate and bounced over the rutted pathway to Uganda. This is as remote and backwoods as Suam border was, just a few extra ‘jobsworths’ here. Over a dusty bridge across a stream and up to the Uganda post. Now with the correct papers this was to be easier.

“Your visa has expired!” said the immigration fellow. “Look, it is valid from the 10th December 2016 to the 9th March 2016.” And so it is! I’ve passed through all these borders with it and no one’s spotted the mistake made at Nairobi airport eleven weeks ago. Oh well, I only have to exit at the same airport – oh, and get back into Kenya, of course. But the mistake is easy enough to talk my way out of. I hope. If the rains stay light, I might go back through relaxed Suam border, where no one seems to care for bureaucracy.

Being ‘old’ is a great help when it comes to bullshitting. No one can believe that an ‘old’ man of 67 is riding a motorbike about rural Africa. “But you look YOUNG!” exclaimed William, the immigration officer as his face registered disbelief. “How do you stay so young?”

“By thinking young and being positive, plenty of exercise, eating sensibly and riding motorbikes round Africa!” said I, thinking of my late mother’s delight as she got older and people took her for 20 years younger than she was! I am a chip off that block, happily.

*

Into Uganda again, and still on a lousy, rutted dirt road winding through rural areas. It’s surprising how tiring fifty miles of this can be, for not only must I move about a lot, but I have to maintain concentration on the ‘road’ and many live, moving obstacles in front. At last I reached the tar road as a light shower passed, just enough for me to get out the waterproofs for fifteen minutes to pass through the busy town of Mbale, where I searched at length for a new spark plug some weeks ago. Then I was onto the road to Sipi, which is in the process of being rebuilt, with various stretches of gravel and bumpy diversions. At long, long last, six hours and 120 miles after leaving Kitale, I turned onto the track I know that leads to the edge of this cliff and Alex’s Coffeeland Resort. By now I was dusty and dry, tired and grubby. These were soon rectified by a wash from a jerrycan in the corrugated bathhouse, some glasses of water from another large yellow jerrycan, and a couple of bottles of Uganda beer. Alex is one of the best cooks that I have found on my journey, a natural instinct that I appreciate! Now I am sitting in my simple, rustic room with lights dimly winking in the vast valley below. Alex has been looking at my pictures and chatting in my room for a congenial hour and a half, drinking his evening tea while I finished my beer. Sometimes I just meet people whom I instinctively like and trust. Alex is one of those. He is smart, courteous and intelligent, good company.

“I wanted to study to be a doctor, but I am one of nine…” he tells me with an acceptance that this is just how things are in Africa, especially in Uganda with its ballooning birthrate and 6.8 children the average for every woman. “My father, he is 53 and still supporting the last boy through Primary Three. Imagine if he were to educate that boy to university, how old he will be!” Bear in mind that only 2% of Ugandans reach 65 years; 53 is already beyond the average life expectancy. Alex, you may remember from Day 43, is a Male Champion in the community here, working with the Reproductive Health Centre (the one whose meeting I had to address!) to attempt to encourage people in this, the world’s ‘youngest’ country by demographics, to reduce the number of births – and value girls equally.

So this bright, educated, forceful young man has to manage a rustic hotel of just a couple of rooms on the edge of a village cliff. He’d have been a good doctor. Africa desperately needs doctors. Instead it has this utterly crazy idea that making children is what is important; having large families proves your masculinity (never mind it kills the women so much younger) and leaving a family line is important. A family line that in generations to come will despise the vanity of these male attitudes so much when poverty and privation, lack of land and resources, water shortage and global warming, wars and conflicts, increasing crime and strife, disease and early death become even more the norm than they are now.

Funny how Uganda makes me so very pessimistic about the direction mankind has taken and the destructive road it seems doomed to follow…

*

After a short, sharp deluge that settled the dust and formed consequent rainbows, the night is now deep and calm. A vast array of stars and planets glitters above, and below there is a sense of the deep gulf below the virtually sheer cliff; of human habitation without electricity, merely the occasional glimmer from solar lights. Hundreds of feet below, in the morning those zinc roofed homes and banana-filled shambas will look like models, just the echoes of cockerels and the shouts of children animating the toy scenery, carried upward on the almost still air. Coffeeland Resort was worth the energy to come back.

DAY 84 THURSDAY 2nd MARCH 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

Alex makes such a good companion on a day like this and has been charming and congenial throughout. We have meandered the earth paths between all his neighbours’ shambas, dropping in to chat with many of them, sitting with some, joining in a band of ‘komek’ drinkers (local ‘beer’ made from maize and yeast) at an informal gathering beneath the bananas, lunching with a relative and co-volunteer of Alex’s and meeting and greeting dozens of people. That’s the sort of day I enjoy here in Africa, and it’s made especially pleasant in Uganda because I can communicate so readily with just about everyone.

“You know, the reason we use English as our main language, and share so much understanding with the British way of life is that Uganda was a protectorate. We were never colonised like the rest of Africa. So we have fond memories of the British as you came and left our culture for us. You see, we never had conflict with the colonials like so many other countries. Your people came and offered us education and we took it, but we weren’t colonised.” Maybe that is why I feel a bond with Uganda, and maybe if you are not overwhelmed by an outside coloniser, you keep your cultural identity and your national pride intact and, in my experience, a country with national pride is usually a stable country.

Komek is made from fermented maize and is pretty disgusting, a fibrous scummy brew with a slightly sour flavour. It’s mildly alcoholic thanks to the yeast and fermentation and is served in a gallon container sitting on some banana leaves on the floor. The grey scum on top bubbles and ‘works’ and occasionally the producer tops up the gummy container with warm water. Meanwhile, men sit around the bucket with long plastic pipes snaking into the mixture, through which they suck sieved liquid, thanks to a filter on the bottom end, from the communal pot. It looks extremely bizarre, to see these men in a circle, curling green plastic pipes descending into the soupy, scummy mix in an old paint container, sucking gently and intently while shaking the pipes to dislodge the fibrous muck that gathers about their personal filter. Alex doesn’t drink at all but – of course – I had to borrow a pipe and taste the frothy dregs! By then one of the drinkers had brought a polythene bag of natural honey from the forest – another suspicious mixture of honey and dead bee carcasses (very tasty!) – and added it to the evil, bubbling mix.

Well, I wouldn’t want to drink it very often, and certainly not in the couple of litre quantities in which these fellows imbibe, but it wasn’t as sinister as its ominous presentation in a scummy bucket with tubes snaking up to the drinkers’ mouths suggested it would be. For me, it would have been more palatable had it not been lukewarm. In fact, over ice it could almost have been rather good – but ice in rural Uganda, and this was certainly somewhat bucolic, is a predictable rarity. Even my bottled beer, as I write, hasn’t seen the inside of a fridge. Drinking through a plastic tube, or lukewarm bottled beer is as sophisticated as it gets, less than a degree from the Equator in Arcadian Africa!

*

One of the social aspects of Africa that never fails to impress me is that strangers are always welcomed unreservedly. Even amongst so much relative poverty, I am received warmly and must be presented with whatever people have, a glass of water, a mug of tea or, in today’s case, our hostess, a relative of Alex, must drop her work of plastering the base of her house with cow dung, mud and ash (‘women’s work’ that is repeated weekly on these earth houses), slopping the mixture with her hands onto the foundation of the walls, to produce matoke (a small, boiled savoury banana that serves as the base of most meals here at this season) and delicious stew of tomatoes and onion. Also in very African fashion, a large bowl of the same food was handed to the local madman, a slouching, tattered fellow with mental disability who had followed us into the compound. Much of rural Africa operates on this compassionate ‘there but for the grace of god’ principle and no beggar or even lunatic goes empty away.

*

I feel so sorry for Alex – one of millions of course – in his frustration at seeing his life passing without the wherewithal to achieve his ambitions or put his entrepreneurial ideas into reality. Given resources, people like him would go far and improve the lot of so many. But resources are just what’s missing in Uganda, with its vast, growing population and poverty. He tells me of his five years working in a busy hotel in Kampala, where he was feted for his customer skills – but cheated, as always, by the ‘businessman’ who ran the operation, undervalued and underpaid to the extent that he preferred to resign and take his – meagre – chances on his own out here in the sticks. Once again, here he has pennies to run this guest house that could, with investment, be a good success, using his personal charm and skills. I meet ‘Alexes’ throughout the continent, able, decent, honest, people with such integrity and personal skills – but no way to express or exploit them commercially. However hard he works, the scales are balanced against him. The world is essentially so unfair. Once again, I am so grateful to come, to witness, to understand (however superficially) – and to go back to my very privileged, easy, comfortable life. With, of course, a very different perspective that often makes the arrogant complacency of many of those about me in that life so difficult to stomach…

*

It’s delightful to be able to entertain so very many lovely children just by being here! All day small, shrill voices have called ‘Hellloooo how are yoooo?’ From amongst the banana trees, where waving children run excitedly about, some running to shake my hand with a polite curtsey, others running behind corners of their mud compounds, half afraid of the strange white-skinned man. Then there are adults, charming and smiling, joking with Alex and respectfully shaking my hand – an endless social nicety – and politely greeting us as we pass. No one, but no one, passes with the dropped eyes and apparent fear of strangers of my own land. In Africa courtesy is the default. It’s always difficult to get back to Britain, as I will in a week’s time. I smile at people in the street, greet them on the buses, and greet complete strangers. But only for a day or two until I realise I am overstepping the bounds of tight-arsed British sensitivity! Actually, that is one behavioural aspect in which Americans beat us hands down. They respond!

*

Alex, a host with great panache, just passed with a glass on a plate as if we are in the best hotel in Kampala. “Almost ready!” he says, and he’s such a good cook on his small charcoal fire in the tumbledown shed he uses for a kitchen. On the 25th of February a huge and sudden squally storm, that destroyed cement buildings (I’ve met three severely injured people today), and brought down power lines, also destroyed his thatched roof, wood kitchen. It will cost him £100 to replace it. How is it that someone so diligent and decent, even has the fickle weather working against him?

Observing him, squatting over a smoky fire in his temporary kitchen, a moment ago, I told him, “You know, Alex, of all the hotels I have stayed in in the past weeks, I have not had such personal attention as here at Coffeeland!”

“Oh, but you are like my own family now!”

There is untold warmth on this continent that I have been so privileged to discover. A text message from Rutoh, receptionist at the Brooke Hotel a few nights ago, reads: ‘I enjoyed your company so much here at the Brooke… You were like my dad… Many people have commented that we were friends and I thank them much.’

Africa is humbling and wonderful.

DAY 85 FRIDAY 3rd MARCH 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

We spent much of the day laughing at the good joke, appreciated by so many we passed, of the mzungu boda-boda, as Alex climbed on the back of the little Suzuki, cramped in by a huge branch of matoke bananas. We were riding down to see Precious. She’s not up here at Coffeeland at the moment, but in a small straggly town twenty miles away, down in the lowlands, where she and Alex have rented a tiny shop – as yet totally empty – to try to build another small business selling basic groceries to the people there. Entrepreneurial Alex is full of ideas and determination. “I am getting old! I am going to thirty years now. In Uganda if you don’t make things happen between thirty and forty five I think they won’t happen any other day!”

Talking with gentle Precious, I sensed that she had left the Coffeeland because of the jealousies surrounding her and Alex. It’s strange, but not uncommon, I suppose, that people resent those with ideas and ambitions who work hard to try to better their meagre lot in life. Precious comes from the other side of Uganda, from the far shores of Lake Bunyonyi, down below Kabale. They met in Kisoro, the last town I passed on the way to Rwanda some weeks back. It was the road from Kabale to Kisoro that I loved so much that I rode that way no less than five times. So now Alex runs the small, struggling resort and tries to develop his own plot along the track from here. He has a decent plot, which I estimate is perhaps half an acre, and a lot of plans to make a coffee bar, some sleeping huts and even a raised terrace area to use the view over the clifftop. He is full of ideas and desperately short of the resources to put them into practice – the old African story.

*

It’s getting time to leave East Africa. The rains are gathering and will soon make bike riding unpleasant and in places impossible. I’m going to wait for the morning to decide whether to ride that appalling track back to Suam border and Kitale, or the longer route south to the main highway border post and back up the other side. By Suam I have about 140 kilometres back to Kitale, by the highway – tar all the way is the advantage – perhaps nearer 300.

“Alex, my friend, I think we should take note of the weather!” I prompted him as we sat outside Precious’s empty shop/ kiosk. For heavy dark clouds were gathering and thunder rolled about. Neither of us had waterproofs and we had a twenty mile journey back up the curling road to the highlands. As it was, we had to shelter in a half-built church shack – a thing of sticks and zinc of some bizarre self-created sect and an acquisitive fake ‘pastor’ – for 45 minutes as the rain rattled on the zinc. Three urchins, their clothes the colour of the filthy red earth, sat with us, goggled eyed as usual at the mzungu in their midst. Other small children, spying the white man, called their customary ‘hello! How are yoooo?’ A white man in these small villages is a thing of wonder indeed. So odd in 2017.

*

There’s no place for vanity though! Visiting the market in the town up the hill of Kapchowa for Alex to buy vegetables for my supper, we were the centre of a lot of good willed humour from market ladies. “They are LAUGHING!” chuckled Alex. “They are saying, ‘Eh, your white man is OLD! They think it is wonderful!” And, of course, in a country in which less than two percent reach my age, I am indeed a wonder – and ‘old’ man with white hair riding a motorbike like a mzungu boda-boda, Alex laughing and waving to his friends from the pillion. He is popular and gregarious, and that rare thing, a man of great integrity. I’m happy we crossed paths in such a random manner and my instincts have proved so correct about him. I’m sure I will do my best to pay another visit next time I come to Kitale and renew a journey with my little blue bike.

He’s cooking up a meal of fresh vegetables as I write. It’s like having a personal cook! For a bit over a pound we bought various vegetables that filled my bag: a big cabbage for 25 pence, a bunch of some spinach-like greens, a large bundle of something akin to spring greens and a bag of tomatoes. And for another 25 pence, about ten passion fruits. I am having to write quickly tonight as the power has been off for 24 hours and I have been unable to charge my iPad. But the benefit of the power outage was when I emerged for a pee in the night and looked up in the utter darkness, without light pollution, and saw the incredible field of stars stretched across the entire sky from our vantage point up her on the clifftop, with only a few distant, dim lights winking in the unseen void of the vast valley below that seems to reach half across Uganda. Worth a power cut.

So, for now, tomorrow’s ride will be my last day ‘on the road’ as I head back home to Kitale and get ready for the journey back to that other world that so oddly coexists with this African one, this forgotten, ignored and so misrepresented continent.

STOP PRESS: I rode back via the filthy, dusty Suam border. What a great ride fory last one! Glorious sunny day and terrific senery and 100kms of trail riding!

I’ll come to the internet cafe on Monday and try to upload some pictures…

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EAST AFRICA SAFARI 2017 – Fourteen

DAY 76 WEDNESDAY 22nd FEBRUARY 2017. BROOKE, KERICHO, KENYA

I did a very, very, very dumb thing this morning. I do sometimes…

Topping up the engine oil, as I do every few days, I unscrewed the oil filler cap and put it on the engine, topped up the oil, talking to Rutoh and others who had gathered on the rough gravel outside the hotel gate, preparatory to leaving. Yep… I rode off without returning the cap. It was perhaps two or three kilometres before I saw how stupid I had been – I mean, as I took it off, I thought to myself, ‘must remember to put it back!’ I turned round immediately, foot on the filler hole and rode gently back. It would be on the bumpy gravel within a couple of metres of where I had topped up the oil – wouldn’t it?

Despite at least ten very friendly Kenyans and twenty pairs of eyes, we never found it. Logic tells me that it couldn’t have balanced more than a few metres on the engine top, but it was gone. Almost an hour of searching, even employing the security staff’s metal detector on a scrubby grass outcrop. Gone. What to do? Cheerful Sambo, such a charmer, a nearby welder making window frames, fashioned a wooden plug with some inner tube as seal, a work of real craft. I rode slowly back along the road searching for the cap; surely it couldn’t have survived this far..? Road bumps, lurching onto the tar edges, bouncing over gravel. It couldn’t have gone far. But it has eluded many eyes over several hours.

Finally, I set off, trusting to the wooden plug, waving goodbye to all my new friends: I DO appreciate how I can share so much communication in Kenya. I rode over the hill to the north and was in tea country. Espying a road into one of the big estates, I turned off to take yet another tea photo, stopping about half way down a gentle hill to a gatehouse and walking into the tea. Photo taken, I threw my leg over the bike, and pushed the electric start. ‘Click’. Again: ‘click’. The engine had seized! I panicked. This was the end of my journey! I would have to send the bike back to Kitale by truck, following in a matatu. The end of my safari.

First things first: I had to get back to Kericho. I needed a pick up truck. I pushed the bike up the hill towards the road, no mean feat as the sun was now high in the sky after a cool morning. The last rise up to the road was beyond me but a cheery fellow selling bags of tea where traffic had to slow down for a speed hump, hurried over to assist. Kenyans are like that. He then (for a small consideration of course) hopped on a boda-boda to go and fetch a pick up truck from town. Little did I know that if I had continued to push the little bike – and now I was appreciating its lightness! – up a long rise of perhaps 500 metres, I could have freewheeled back to the hotel! Oh well, in the end we loaded the bike into the pick up and drove about two kilometres (costing me about £8!). I stopped at the hotel to drop off my bags and rebook my room with smiling Rutoh – who had already sent me two text messages to say how he had enjoyed my visit and ‘safe journey’ – Kenyans are so good at these social niceties.

There was, everyone assured me, a good bike mechanic in the local town. I’m not actually lodging in Kericho, but four kilometres down the road in Brooke (Brooke Bond, I wonder??), and the local community is a scruffy place of run down lock up shops, pitted streets and small businesses, a typical African local town. We drove into the depths of this seedy area and, sure enough, there was an oily cavern of a single storey lock up with bikes in various stages of decrepitude and destruction littered about. My arrival caused a stir and we soon had the bike amongst the mess and oiliness. Simon, the driver of the pick up drove away with many smiles, leaving me with Nashon and his assistants and a considerable crowd of onlookers. Nashon is a quiet, unassuming man who gave off an air, to me at least, of mechanical confidence that cheered me no end. He was undemonstrative and quickly assessed my bike’s problem. Removing the spark plug, he injected engine oil into the cylinder and gently worked the kick start until the piston released. I heaved a HUGE sigh of relief! Setting his assistant to continue pumping at the kick start, he delved into the oily filth and gloom of his lock up and began to search amongst an astonishing display of derelict machines for an oil filler cap that would fit my engine. Many were unearthed from the heaps of rusting, dusty carcasses and, eventually and to everyone’s delight, he found one that just about fitted! The assistant was still working at the kick start.

Well, after less than half an hour, Nashon pushed the electric starter and my little blue bike fired! To say I was happy would be a gross understatement. My journey was possible again. The bike was unharmed and not going to cost me a fortune and end up being scrapped with a knackered piston! I was back in business.

Of all my saviours, Nashon was the best, a man of integrity and capability and quiet confidence. Grinning from ear to ear, I asked him what I owed him – for rescuing my entire journey and maybe the next one too! I had already advanced £4 for oil but he had £3 change from that. Counting the notes in his hand, he said quietly, “give me another 300 Shillings – slightly under £2.50! Five pounds fifty for saving my motorbike! Why, I’d paid Simon £8 for a two kilometre-long rescue and the tea-selling fellow who’d gone with the boda-boda a kilometre to fetch help had conned £4 out of me! I happily gave Nashon an extra couple of pounds, to his embarrassed delight.

It’s always the way: when trouble hits me on these journeys, I end up with a story to tell and meet so many kind, helpful, compassionate people. I’m surrounded by smiles and good cheer and all seem to be happy to have me back in the simple Brooke Hotel, eating Patrick’s food again and sitting with my beer on the upper terrace above the road. It’s distinctly cool now and it rained in the late afternoon, just after I paid Bernard £1.60 (he asked 80p) for spending at least 45 minutes washing my bike at the roadside. It was, not surprisingly, blathered in engine oil – as was my right boot. So, Rutoh, Patrick, Sambo, Simon, Joanne, Nashon and several others have all made what could have been a fraught and worrying day into a very positive experience, another story and warm impressions. The hotel manager sat with me for half and hour and an elderly man just introduced himself, the owner of the hotel. The hotel is basic but friendly and comfortable; the bed warm and cosy in the cool night; the food quite acceptable – the breakfast was excellent; the staff warm and welcoming – and my journey is back on course. Not a bad outcome for the day.

DAY 77 THURSDAY 23rd FEBRUARY 2017. BROOKE, KERICHO, KENYA

Well laid plans gang oft astray… Well, of course, and fortunately, I seldom actually HAVE a plan on these journeys. Just as well today.

It was a stressful morning, enough to make my head spin and ache mildly. My motorbike was reduced to its component parts, nuts, bolts, cogwheels, piston, clutch plates, circlips, spacers, washers and all the assorted bits and pieces. To one used to BMW’s spotless, shiny – extremely expensive – workshops, with not a speck of dust and grit or smudge of oil, ‘mechanics’ in ironed shirts, seeing my vehicle stripped so comprehensively onto the dirt, dust, bits of greasy sacking and general oily filth of an African lock-up workshop at the edge of the road, is very worrying. Being already the possessor of another motorbike in Rico’s compound, one that he bought for me last year but later condemned as ‘butchered’ and for which he has since been trying – unsuccessfully so far – to get my money back, I was alarmed that I was about to have another useless machine.

However, my usual luck has held and I perceive in Nashon not just a decent, honest man, but a reasonably sensitive, experienced mechanic.

*

Packed up and ready to set off to the north, I pushed the bike out of the hotel courtyard, shook Rutoh’s hand for the umpteenth time and pressed the starter – to no avail more than a click. A few times more, but still a mere click. I decided to push the machine back to Nashon’s workshop, a quarter of a mile away. “We must take off this,” said quiet Nashon, fingering the cylinder head. And then they began, he and his two assistants. Bolts and nuts piled up on the old sack; shiny bits of Japanese engineering were strewn about the floor and sacking in increasing piles. There was grease and oil everywhere. I watched apprehensively, wondering – as a totally inept mechanic with no aptitude for engines – whether they would ever remember how it all went back together. I wouldn’t.

They identified the problem. I may jest about the workshop and the oily mud on which they worked, but Nashon was efficient and able; it’s just that no one here has the best tools, and has to improvise – which is where I feared the ‘butchery’, but Nashon was quite careful and obviously knowledgeable. He started his small business – the two assistants are his cousins – some years ago, before the influx of cheap Chinese machines, so he honed his skills on Japanese bikes and knows them well.

The problem was the flywheel ratchet, from which three teeth have sheared, along with several corresponding teeth on the adjacent cog. The broken pieces may be anywhere in the engine, gearbox or clutch, so it meant a TOTAL strip down and thorough cleaning of all the engine parts.

Off came the cylinder head; off came the cylinder; off came the clutch housing, the starter motor, the exhaust, cables, electric connectors, things I didn’t recognise… In the end the skeleton of the engine was sitting on a stool in the muddy, petrol smelling, oily arena with bits piling up around us. This was major surgery. Sure enough, they did find two of the broken teeth; the rest perhaps shredded to dust. There appears to be no damage done at least

Then, to my relief, began the rebuild. Methodically the three of them, Nashon, Lucas and Ken began to reassemble the engine, blathering it in petrol to clean it as they went. The parts may be available from Kisumu, the second town of Kenya, about Two hours away down on the lake, and Nashon will set off at 5.00am to fetch them for me. THAT’S service. My respect for Nashon increases. I have given him 10,000 shillings (£80) in great faith of his absolute honesty. As I have so often written, my experience of the world has led me to believe very sincerely that 99.9% of people are good, decent and kind.

Nashon believes that this was a problem that was due to occur eventually in my engine, probably coincidental to – or perhaps just finalised by – the oil filler cap debacle. Old age, he reckoned, not my stupidity. Maybe he said that in sympathy for my feelings.

*

Fortunately, since I was able to rebook my room, charming Rutoh insisted that he must have my ‘contact’ so that we could communicate after I leave. This happens everywhere. Everyone in Kenya wants my ‘contact’, however briefly we interact. Mobile phones are the lifeblood of daily existence in Africa now. They burble and bleep all around me; people shout into their phones in every situation; boda-boda riders have their phones thrust into the sides of their helmets; passengers talk; drivers chat; truck and petrol tanker drivers steer their lethal weapons with one hand, the other clutching their phone; everyone listens to scratchy FM radio on minuscule trebly speakers – silence is a thing of the past. Almost no one, no one, is without a phone, clutched in that very 21st century gesture, fingers twitching, endlessly obsessed with ‘social media’ at the expense of actual social interaction – like smiling at passers by or chatting to your neighbour.

*

So, a third night in Brooke, by Kericho. I find myself philosophical about it all. I’m happy this has happened here, not in Tanzania or Rwanda, where communication – on every level – was so much more restricted. Here I am welcomed, understood on a cultural level and surrounded by delightful people who seem genuinely pleased that I keep getting delayed and they can spend more time with me. Isn’t that a great compliment and honour?

DAY 78 FRIDAY 24th FEBRUARY 2017. BROOKE, KERICHO, KENYA

For an hour or two today I assumed my motorbike journey was over and began to deliberate how to ship the bike back to Kitale and continue my journey by public transport. A message from Nashon in Kisumu told me that he could not find the flywheel ratchet cog required or the one that connects to the starter motor. At the time I was rambling in the nearby tea estate. So this, I thought, is the end of my safari. I’m happy it has happened with only a couple of weeks to go.

Late afternoon, poor Nashon drove back from Kisumu, over two hours away. I am so impressed by this quiet, honest, decent man. He had been unable to locate the parts we needed – and I am sure he tried hard on my behalf. When he got back, I was waiting at his scruffy, oily lock up, watching the street life around me. By then I was resigned to the fact that I’d need to transport the disabled machine back to Kitale. What I hadn’t understood, in my mechanical ineptitude, was that the machine would still work, but without the electric starter. Who cares for that! For many years every one of my trail bikes had a kick start, and my 67 year old right leg is more than equal to kicking 200cc’s of compression!

Nashon set to work. Lucas and Ken had already put most of the bike back together during the early morning. It just needed the left hand engine casing back, with the damaged flywheel ratchet and alternator. Leaving out the connecting cog that transfers drive from the starter to the engine, he and Lucas reassembled the engine and refilled the oil reservoir. When Nashon kicked the starter, I must admit that my smile spread from ear to ear! The bike sounds a great deal better than it has since it arrived from Nairobi back at New Year. It has, of course, had the most comprehensive service imaginable! New oil, a complete clean out, readjustment as it was reassembled and all nuts and bolts checked and tightened.

Nashon even insisted on washing the bike before I could ride it away. By then he had test ridden and inspected his and his colleagues’ work. A thorough, conscientious mechanic, with pride in his work. I was so fortunate to find him, not the customary bike butchers.

After six, I took him into his filthy, wrecked bike-piled lock up to settle up. He was embarrassed as he finally, timidly asked me for 4000 shillings (£32) for the labour, plus 2000/- for oil and petrol for his trip to Kisumu (£16). I happily added 1000/- for giving me back my journey and added another 400/- to give to the two assistants for beer. My total bill was therefore £59 for a COMPLETE dismantlement and rebuild of my bike. At Ocean BMW in Plymouth this would have probably cost me not less than £1500, basing my estimate on the hours worked and their labour charges. Oh, plus VAT! Is it surprising I am happy? Well, in my own defence, I am happier at having my little bike back, than at the low cost of the work!

What’s more, the bike is running the best it has run since I owned it.

*

With hours to squander while Nashon drove to Kisumu, I wandered off into the tea estates behind the hotel. Such beauty should be enjoyed and the tranquility was just what I needed to overcome the tension of wondering if my bike would ever run again on this trip. A mile or so from the hotel, deep in the tea bushes, I watched the new regime: tea clipping machines, like lawnmowers that ski over the tops of the tea bushes, propelled laboriously by a man on each side. The tea is sliced off and blown into a large bag behind, that coasts over the tea on a vinyl fabric skid. Gone the flowing colours of the tea pluckers, baskets over their shoulders, chattering and laughing in the tides of tea. This is automation, efficiency – and smelly exhaust and noise. But this is Unilever too, multinational profits to a vast corporation. It seems to me that much of the world is owned by Unilever, Nestle and Coca Cola… A worrying thought.

Soon I met Hillary, a very charming supervisor, overseeing his patch. Actually, I shouldn’t have been wandering the tea estates without permission from Unilever in Kericho, and certainly not with my camera without sanction from the ‘press office’! However, Hillary let it pass and we conversed for about two hours, gazing over the tea bushes, many of them, Hillary said, planted by white settlers almost a century ago. Now it’s big business but Unilever have established standards and systems and stamped out corruption at every level (except, says my cynical side, at the international profit and taxation level…), but in the field there’s little nepotism or bribery, and health and safety are taken seriously, rules and regulations observed. The ‘mower’ operators are supplied with protective clothing and adhere to safe practices. Despite my distaste at the probable corporate greed of Unilever, I had to be impressed by the operation in the field. The tea has been of low crop this year thanks to drought, but is usually cropped about every 17 days by hand plucking or 24 days by the mechanical trimmers. From the field it goes to the factory over the hill, is rested for six hours and fermented for eight, before it is chopped and sifted and dried and packed.

And we drink from tea bags! The dust that is discarded at the end of the process. “Yes, you drink dust!” Hillary laughed!

We chatted amiably for a long time. Trimmers came to refuel their machines. “It’s a safety measure, the machines should be cooled down before they are refuelled, to prevent accident,” said Hillary, when I wondered at the inefficiency of the two operators carrying the machine hundreds of metres to the fuel, instead of the fuel can to the machine. “You see, we have fire extinguishers here, and everyone must present themselves with their full safety gear every morning if they want to work.” I watched the men guiding their machines across the top of the tea bushes, all a uniform height, trimmed so regularly for so many decades. It is hard work, forcing their way through the dense sea of tea, heavy yellow aprons pulling through the almost impenetrable greenness. The teams alternate daily with sorting the leaves at tables in the field, tossing the tea into nylon sacks that will be collected by truck and taken away for processing. Across the green carpets I could see the housing blocks for the workers, vastly improved on my memories of the crude, basic housing I saw in 2002. Now every small home has solar electricity, running water, sanitation and even waste recycling. It’s quite an impressive operation – but then, it’s also a huge operation. Unilever own a vast amount of the land between here and distant Nairobi. This is no small rural farming: this is multinational corporate big business.

*

I’ve been very warmly received here in Brooke (yes, it IS from Brooke Bond, precursor of Unilever) and have had to promise many people that I will return one day, maybe when I come back to reclaim my little blue bike for another trip. Out in the tea ocean, I met various people who had seen me riding in Brooke and Kericho. A white man stands out rather! But it’s so pleasing to be the focus of so much goodwill.

As I have been writing on the hotel balcony, a violent rainstorm machine-gunned on the steel roof above me, deafeningly noisy. Once again though, I don’t care if it rains when I am drinking my beer and not riding my little blue bike! Oddly, since I have been in Africa for eleven weeks, I am rather sunburned tonight, my face flaming, yet it didn’t seem so sunny today, with plenty of cloud as the rainy season gathers strength.

Tomorrow, my journey can resume, for its final few rides. After a brief hiatus, that I imagined to be the end of my journey, I can ride on – and enjoy very much the memory of so many congenial, warmly welcoming fellow beings. These experiences fill me with a general sense of goodwill.

DAY 79 SATURDAY 25th FEBRUARY 2017. KESSUP, KENYA

A fine ride today, made finer by the fact that it WAS a ride, a ride on my motorbike that seemed back from the dead, and actually running better than it’s done since I started my travels in early January. Nashon seems to have done a very efficient job and I am happy to have my journey back. I rode by his oily workshop to tell him so before I left town.

And now I am exhausted and in bed at 8.00! There’s a noisy party taking place outside in the gardens of the guest house, to which I have returned for the third time, about six weeks after I last stayed here. But I am so weary tonight that the ear plugs should keep it all at bay.

*

Nervously, I pushed the bike out of the hotel yard in Brooke and kicked the starter arm. It took some time to fire, alarming me briefly, but then it ran, and continued to run for 220 kilometres of fine scenery. I’d ridden much of the route before a few weeks ago, including that road that I exclaimed about so much that wound me down into the Rift Valley warmth, up to the coolness of the forests at Tenges and Kabarnet, down again onto the oppressive heat of the Kerio Valley and finally up to the plateau two thirds of the way up the escarpment of the Kenyan highlands. Kenya has some fine scenery, and if you avoid the busy main highways, provides relaxing days. For a brief while I was on the main Nairobi to Kampala road, one of the country’s most accident prone, but fortunately I had only fifteen kilometres on a fairly quiet stretch before I could turn to the north onto remoter roads back to Eldama Ravine (site of that awful night with the pounding disco as I tossed in my brocade and gossamer draped bed) and on in and out of the fabulous valleys and forested mountains. Stopping for tea in high Kabarnet, I was recognised by young Erick, the waiter, whose name, astonishingly, I remembered despite such a brief tea stop several weeks ago. A muzungu who mixes with the people and doesn’t flash past behind glass, and one who chats with the staff, is remembered here.

Back up the final long sweeps from the Kerio Valley to the plateau of Kessup there’d been a drizzly shower, now just a wet road. For all these weeks I have avoided getting wet, dodging an occasional shower but never having to pull on the waterproofs to ride, except the other morning when I rode off into the tail of that heavy rain on the last morning in Rwanda. It’s often rained at night but almost never while I rode my bike. What luck!

At one point on the road today I was suddenly conscious that I was riding exactly on top of my own shadow. I looked at my clock and found it was about midday, and I must at that point have been almost exactly crossing the Equator once again at that moment.

*

So back to Lelin Campsite, where I have spent a few nights. Before I could even settle to my room William appeared, alerted by the staff to my return. To describe William’s reaction as excitement and delight would be a serious understatement! Ecstatic might come closer. I am now his best friend after his daughter in Australia. It seems that he will never get over the honour I have bestowed on him that will make him great in his community. I am a great man, a very special man… And so it went on over a beer for me and a quarter of gin for him. Trouble is, as with almost every African of my acquaintance, alcohol is uncontrollable. Decent, cheerful William proceeded, as I ate my supper, to drink a Guinness, order another and become very garrulous. I’ve known so many Africans who died from hard alcohol (mainly in Ghana). It is the continent’s Achille’s heel, the inability to limit alcoholic intake, the imbibing of seriously strong spirits – often with insufficient solid nutrition. Strong young men like Kotua in Navrongo – one of the toughest men I ever knew, who could work like a machine in the hot sun, water his dry season gardens with a bucket hour after hour, hack and hoe the dry dust and rock hard soil of Navrongo for days on end… He sold his family’s heritage for viciously lethal home distilled alcohol, and perished before forty, weakened and destroyed by his inability to live without the stimulant of that dire spirit, always drunk neat, guzzled into an overheated body without solid food. He’s not the only one I knew; and doubtless it is all around me now. It’s a hard life in Africa and people think they can improve their lot from the bottle. Banning alcohol and enfranchising women would be my two choices for this continent. THEN you’d see it surge forward from its basket-case situation, as it contains so many of the world’s natural resources and social skills. Women, with the natural responsibility of their role as mothers, think of the future. Men think of instant gratification. A generalisation, perhaps, but not far from the truth in my extensive observation of this continent. The power here is in the wrong hands…

So I hurried away to bed before eight, leaving William to his second Guinness and a weave home in the dense darkness, but no doubt he is familiar with his route. I came away to my room and by 8.30 realised, as the mis-typing spread, that I didn’t even have the energy to carry out my invariable daily discipline and write my diary, which I am now having to do over breakfast. At 8.30 I turned over and went to sleep! William, doubtless unscathed, will be back at 10 to accompany me around his community once again. Since my wisdom seems to be in the ascendant in his eyes, I might take the opportunity to tell him about Kotua and the others!

*

Talking over breakfast in Brooke with my neighbour, she transpired to be the daughter of the elderly owner of the hotel. A smart, capable woman, she told me she has come for a time from her home in Washington DC. “The hotel is under performing, so I’ve come to see if I can help improve its fortunes. How long? Oh, maybe a couple of months. But I may stay on… I don’t feel comfortable or welcome as a black in Trump’s America…” No doubt she speaks for a large percentage of the population.

DAY 80 SUDAY 26th FEBRUARY 2017. KESSUP, KENYA

“Yes, I was so excited!” William agreed when I told him he was very drunk last night. “So excited to see my friend again!”

Today he accompanied me all over the hillsides of Kessup community once again, introducing me to all his neighbours and friends. He’s a well known and obviously popular fellow and makes a good introduction for a wandering mzungu. So many people came to shake my hand. “Greeting a mzungu is something very special for them! Maybe they never touched a mzungu before! It’s very special for them.”

We met William’s mother, Teresa, and many of his brothers and half brothers, cousins, nephews and nieces – as well as a lot of local people who weren’t related I suppose. We sat for a time drinking bulsa – the local beer, a soupy fibrous mixture made from millet and maize. I don’t have much taste for it and poured a good deal of mine quietly into William’s ‘Tilly Pure Cooking Fat’ container, retaining just enough to impress and appear polite to all the passing villagers as we sat on a low wall on a steep slope. Everyone waved from far and near, came to shake the mzungu’s hand, and many actually wanted me to take their photos which, of course, I did with pleasure, adding another twenty or so people to my portfolio of smiling portraits. It’s so easy to get the majority of Africans to smile. All I have to do is smile at them!

We had a light lunch of beef stew and potato made by William’s mother and later repaired to the Rock Hill Resort for beer. After my short talk about the dangers of hard spirits and the need for moderation and thought, William drank Guinness. I felt a bit of a killjoy, but I might extend his life by some years if I can make him consider the damage that a frequent quarter of gin can do on a dehydrated body. He took the advice well, after all, I am his senior by fifteen years, so he has to give respect to my opinion. His daughter, currently studying nursing in Australia – “I am the only person in the whole community who has sent his child out to train abroad!” William boasts proudly – his daughter, understands his proclivities too. She won’t send him money, but arranges for groceries to be brought from Eldoret instead! Says William, “She doesn’t want me to go to the village..!”, meaning to the illegal spirit makers to spend his money, or her money. So a friendly word of warning went down well from his new ‘best friend after his daughter’. He and his wife, strangely invisible and a police officer in Eldoret, invested about £11,000 or £12,000 in sending Lydia to Perth. A huge sum and a great investment in a daughter’s future.

Conversing in the bar with one of William’s neighbours, watchman at the same bar, I was reminded again of the prejudice against girl children still so prevalent in most of Africa. To his astonishment I informed him that many people in Europe actually chose not to have any children, let alone the six and sixteen that Africans bear. “Two is enough! You can educate two and their future has a chance of some development, but five, eight, nineteen! how can you care for them? The grandchildren won’t thank these stupid men who are proud of the huge families they bear. The population expands, but Kenya stays the same size, with less water, less resources, less trees…”

“But if you have only two, what if they are both girls?”

“Why do you always devalue girls here? If you have two girls someone else will have two boys! That’s nature! Nature keeps a balance. Look at the statistic all over the world, even in Africa where you are so obsessed to have boys; you’ll see: a maximum of two percent difference between the number of boys and girls born! That’s nature keeping control. You can’t change that. It’s the work of your god! God’s will, if you like. Educate your girls, make them leaders, get rid of the stupid, self-interested, proud, corrupt men and your country will thrive!”

But of course, most of it falls on deaf ears. Boys are a gift from god, girls a burden. How does one change this attitude? I do my little bit – but no one believes a mzungu with no children, no belief in god and no interest in football..!

*

It’s been a hot and very scorchingly sunny day, but the sort of day I enjoy, partly for meeting so many friendly folk and being the focus of their goodwill and partly for enlarging my collection of photos once again. Say it myself as I will, I do have a wonderful collection now, and there’s a certain professionalism about them. Handing my camera to one of William’s friends in the bar garden as William wanted a photo of us drinking beer together, proved once again that not everyone has the ‘eye’ for photography. The fellow got most of us in the picture, but it needed a lot of straightening and cropping to make a picture. I am proudest about my portraits in that the subjects are reacting to ME, not the camera.

I think this could be another 8.30 night! A lot of sun, walking on the dusty steep hills, answering endless questions – yes, I feel another very early night approaching fast. Last night I slept for most of eleven hours. No beer tonight, which’ll help my sleep; I had two in the afternoon. Now I have eaten a basic supper cooked by Vicky in her charcoal black tin kitchen hut and the day is almost done. It’s not even eight yet. It’s very quiet outside tonight, just a very distant dog barking far below in the deep blue valley. A few lights wink down there in the heat of the Kerio Valley bottom and Kabarnet, where I stopped for tea yesterday, provides a sequinned patch of light about twenty miles away on top of the opposite escarpment. Between me and Kabarnet lies a whole deep valley of darkness, little habitation and quite a lot of roaming African wildlife. A silent night world. Only in Africa do you see such depth and breadth of darkness at night.

*

I phoned Adelight a while ago and told her I will be back to Kitale tomorrow. I had a warmly cheerful welcome. “Oh, we will cook a NICE lunch! Welcome home!” How fortunate I am to have – and to make – friends all over the world.

EAST AFRICAN SAFARI 2017 – thirteen

DAY 70 THURSDAY 16th FEBRUARY 2017. KAYONZA, RWANDA

In the end, I rode right bang through the centre of Kigale, following my well developed bump of direction and found myself on the road to the east without a flaw. Andrew, the hotel manager in Nyanza wasn’t comforting about the long cut that avoided the city and the day was heavily overcast, draining the contrast and colour from the pretty Rwandan landscape. I decided just to fight it out with the city traffic, which here in Rwanda is pretty disciplined and polite, lacking the murderous instincts of Ugandan drivers. Kigale is a small city anyway. They are still digging up the wide road outside the dull guest house I used at the weekend and no diversions are ever signposted in African cities so, knowing just enough of the shape of the city from my brief walkabouts, I took to some cross-country antics down bumpy, rutted unmade lanes and found my way onto the sweeping avenue to the east.

It wasn’t an interesting ride, all the earlier part I had ridden before – twice. I was sorely tempted to turn off back to Kibuye, but my Rwandan permits only last until Sunday, so it was cutting it fine. Anyhow, I have no idea how the roads and terrain, or the people and interest, will be in my brief trip across the top of Tanzania, so I pressed on, looking only with regret at the turning back over those fine mountains to Kibuye and the peaceful lakeside scenes.

The eastern part of Rwanda is much lower and gently rolling than the more dramatic steep mountains down the west side, sliced by Lake Kivu from the Congolese mountains in another arm of the African Rift Valley that is so much a feature of travel in these countries. Once clear of the traffic and business of Kigale, I was back onto a wide, good quality road between the intense cultivation that makes up so much of this small country. It’s densely populated too, and I seldom leave habitations along the main roads that I have been using all across the country. And where there’s habitation there are people walking the roadsides, bicycle taxis struggling up the long hills – or freewheeling at alarming speeds down the other sides. As before, some of the people wave and greet, others stare impassively, but not aggressively; I am just too far beyond their ken to make contact, however casual.

In Rwamagana, a well developed town 30 miles from Kigale, I needed a stop and a drink. I pulled into quite the poshest, most snooty hotel I have seen in Rwanda and asked for a flask of African tea. In my very faded motocross trousers (that do very well as a disguise of relative poverty in rural areas) and my dust stained, faded jacket, I didn’t look the part for that hotel, and I could see from the welcome – frosty might describe it – that I was considered below the expected customer standards as smartly suited men and brightly clad women came and went from a conference of the Ministry of Health. But so far as I am concerned, the Min of Health has NO business squandering the taxpayers’ money of this poor nation on such pomp and pretentiousness and needs to be brought down a peg or two! It’s all show and no knickers to me, this conceit, so popular amongst the self-claimed ‘first class’ of these poverty stricken nations. The tea was good, despite the disdain of the staff!

*

Thanks to the ease of my passage through small Kigale, I was at Kayonza in the mid-afternoon. The Tanzania border is about fifty or sixty miles from here, in the bottom corner of Rwanda. I didn’t intend to cross today; border formalities are best approached in the morning, I find. Then at least there’s less pressure for the tedious stuff of bureaucracy, visas and money changing. So it seemed sensible to look for a place to sleep and have a relaxing afternoon. My free tourist map, given to me by Marechal at the Ugandan border some days ago, on which I have relied for information, showed a guest house by the long, sinuous, shallow Lake Muhazi, called the Seeds of Peace Centre. It’s delightfully situated just beside the quiet lake with lawns running down to the still water. I’ve a good enough room looking out on the lake. It’s quiet and reasonable at £15 again. The only drawback is that it is run by Episcopalians and is thus ‘dry’. However, ten minutes’ walk down the lakeside is the Jambo Bar, an empty place of beer umbrellas and plastic chairs with a hideous and fringed stork strutting about and barking at me. It looks as if it’s made from pipe cleaners and felt, rather than feathers and bones.

*

I’ll be sorry to leave the astonishing cleanliness of this country. The people take a pride in their surroundings that is unusual anywhere in the world of my knowledge. Even the roadsides are often planted with colourful trimmed shrubs and neat grass verges. Topiary is very popular and I see many tidy displays. It is heartening to see such visual awareness and pride. Oddly enough, though, another observation I have made since being in Rwanda is that I have had to become accustomed to the strong smell of sweaty bodies! Personal dress, so often at odds with the dwellings and surroundings of most other African countries, where great pride is taken in personal appearance and incredible cleanliness despite dust and intense heat, is here the scruffiest I have seen. I accept that this is a poor society and money is a rare commodity, but where so many African nations spend a disproportionate quantity of their small personal wealth on clothes, even second hand ones, and soap, Rwandans don’t seem to care much! People do a lot of heavy manual work here; hacking at the soil with hoes, pedalling huge loads up long hills on old bicycles, carrying almost everything on their heads and backs, toiling at incredible tasks – and I have become used, even at thirty miles an hours as I pass gangs of bicycle taxi-men or resting fellows by the roadside, to wafts of sour sweat smells. All part of the rich pattern of East African life, I suppose. And I’ve also seen the amount of water that has to be carried up those hills too. Maybe washing one’s body is a low priority. I guess it would be for me if I had to lug the water as far as so many Rwandans do!

DAY 71 FRIDAY 17th FEBRUARY 2017. BIHARAMULO, TANZANIA

I rode far too long and late today, forced by circumstances, and only found a place to sleep as the light was failing. It’s something I usually rigorously try to avoid, but crossing borders sometimes just throw things out. Oh well, all’s well etc…

*

The first real rains came this morning, starting soon after dawn and falling hard and constantly for several hours. So my day started late as I lingered in the shelter of the guest house reception hut until almost noon. My breakfast was the best yet – for £2. Fresh pineapple (as usual), African tea (as usual for the coffee is normally so bad), a Spanish omelette (as usual, but this one was generous and tasty) and a delicious pancake that came with a pot of local honey. It’s just as well it was so good, since supper only came late, in a dingy beer bar here in this small town. Supper was a sort of barbecue-in-the-bag chicken with vegetables done in foil over charcoal. It would have been good had the chicken not been quite such a vintage hen that had been smashed to pieces with a hammer before cooking and had to be pulled apart with greasy fingers in an almost dark bar! Still, by then I was just grateful to be sitting down with some food and a bottle of milk stout…

*

So by noon I rode away, into a slight drizzle that slowly died away after the long downpour. By early afternoon the sun was beginning to break through and by the time all the border formalities were done, the afternoon was clear and sparkling and the scenery splendid: large vistas over big rolling mountains covered in that sort of bush country that we think of when we hear the word ‘Africa’, a sort of cross between brilliantly green rolling veldt and acacia covered ridges thick with long grass and scattered trees. The mountains fell away dramatically to a vibrantly, dazzling green flat valley with a shining green floor that looked like a fitted, growing carpet.

The border was rather impressive and well coordinated with all the business concentrated in one building depending which direction you are travelling. Normally, borders are separated; all the formalities of the country you are leaving carried out one side of the barrier/ bridge/ no man’s land/ pass, and the other papers all done separately, by different nationals in the next country. Here, I rode through a long chicane past the building on the Rwandan side to a single large matching building on the Tanzanian side, where the outgoing passport window was adjacent to the incoming and so on. It did make for efficiency. But everyone seemed a bit phased by the Englishman taking a Kenyan motorbike from Rwanda through Tanzania, and seemed confused as to what I should do and what papers were required. In the end, I have a transit visa valid for a couple of weeks, that doesn’t allow me to tour – but I’m not sure how anyone would know if I did anyway, so long as I stay in the roughly northern area. Then a pleasant official made me out some form of document that seems to be a sort of temporary import permit to take my bike across the country. Well, I don’t care. The transit visa was £24 instead of a full visa for £40, the permit was free, and there was nowhere to buy insurance anyway. “You will have to buy it in Mwanza, I think…” pondered the official, who seemed so confused. By the time I get to Mwanza, I’ll be most of the way across Tanzania back to Kenya!

At last I rode away from the border. I am totally lost without a map. I do like to have a map and know where I am and what’s around me. They are scarce in East Africa and none of the old ones I have from Rico’s collection covers this part of Tanzania south of Lake Victoria. I asked a fellow in the immigration hall as I waited for my visa to be processed and he wrote down the names of the towns I will pass. He intimated there’d be a decent sized town with plenty of guest houses about 24 kilometres along my way, where I could stay tonight. I suppose it was the ugly, dusty, straggly village filled with parked petrol tankers that I passed through after about 18 kilometres, for I saw no other. By then I was well past it, and it hadn’t looked promising anyhow. So I battled on. There was a town, or what I thought must be a town as there was a major road junction there, in 68 kilometres. Sadly, though, the road was appalling, peppered with potholes like tank traps, many of them six inches deep and sharp-edged. Half the road was also in some state of being rebuilt – on a very long timescale by the look of it. By now the afternoon was advancing – and I’d moved forward an hour back to East Africa Time.

Eventually, worn down by the intense concentration that potholes require, especially in late afternoon when the low sun casts shadows of the roadside trees across the tarmac for confusion, I reached the junction and found the town to be a very down at heel, grubby rural village of shacks and stalls and mud. I looked for accommodation and was shown two sheds, for they really were little more, in grubby brick yards. Yes, these were the places I frequented on my early parsimonious travels! The price was all of £2 for a basic room with a metal framed bed, a foam mattress that wouldn’t have borne much inspection, and a few bits of sheet. I guess there was a pit latrine and a bucket bathroom with cold water. I ALMOST took one of those grim cells; I mean, I am not unaccustomed to that way of life at all! What actually put me off was that almost everyone who talked to me appeared to be drunk. That didn’t augur well for a night’s rest and security. I decided not…

So another 30 kilometres had to be tackled, with the sun now drooping in the sky, the clouds tinging with a cloudy sunset. Fortunately, those last kilometres were on a smooth fast road and I managed to coax almost 55 miles an hour out of my little blue bike. As the light failed, I reached Biharamulo, to find it a proper town of a backwoods sort but with simple guest houses that were a cut above the basic sheds. By chance, as I rode, I recollected that the name Biharamulo was familiar and that I had been looking at the internet a few days ago to investigate the map of northern Tanzania – in the absence of a paper one – and happened upon a blog website that mentioned a place here called the Old Boma. Well, any recommendation, even from someone’s old blog, is better than searching at random at sunset. I asked my way here and have a large room of an old fashioned sort that you find in somewhat run down places round the Mediterranean, opening off a yard behind what’s obviously a collection of relatively historic buildings from early colonial days – the town fort and administrative buildings. It’s quite a fine location with thick walls and that early colonial African feel. I’ve an en suite room, which sounds grand but is a lot less pretentious than that, with polished concrete, worn painted floor and stained whitewash. But the bed’s clean and about half the bathroom fitting work, a pretty good average. It’ll do for the night. The price is certainly right: £4.40 – a record low for this trip. A middle aged South African couple are camping out in the yard with their expedition vehicle. Solvieg and Ian live in Gordon’s Bay, where I stayed in February 2015, the closest I could afford to stay to Cape Town. They’ve driven up and are now doing a similar circuit to me in the opposite direction.

*

I’d been intrigued for a while how the change back from right to left side of the road would be achieved at this land border. Between Uganda and Rwanda it was just a 100 metre long piece of road between two gates, controlled by soldiers. On the Uganda side they opened the left gate, and at the other end of the short no man’s land, the soldier opened the right hand gate. On this border it was very neatly done. The road through the border area was a dual carriageway with a central barrier. At one point the road curved out into a figure of eight with instruction signs that instructed ‘straight across ONLY’. Automatically I changed from the right carriageway to the left carriageway. Very clever. A tidy touch that rather made my day.

It’s good to be able to communicate easily again, now I am back in anglophone Africa. I did miss that in Rwanda, compounded by the apparent reserve of the people. (I don’t get many portraits when I can’t communicate). But I did appreciate the cleanliness and visible pride that Rwandans take in their surroundings. I rode through a number of villages today that had been planted with avenues of brilliantly yellow flowering trees. Verges are well kept and households enjoy their clipped and trimmed hedges and even make formal little gardens in the French chateaux style of geometric low hedges and tiny patches of lawn in front of their simple houses. These little efforts make a very good impression, especially on this continent where I often accuse the populous of being visually illiterate about and careless of their surroundings. Rwanda was a fine surprise, a magnificent landscape, intensely cultivated, well cared for, with good roads and generally excellent infrastructure, uncorrupted officials and a general sense of calm. If they would only change the national greeting from the outstretched palm and the imperative demand, “…money!” it’d be even finer. As it is, that wasn’t particularly aggressively done, just habitual, so when I kept my cool and just said, “No!” they didn’t seem very offended, since they were only trying it on anyway.

*

I didn’t mean to ride 150 miles, especially having set off only at noon. I keep reminding myself that it is only 9.30 as I am writing, not 10.30 as the clock tells me. I’m weary enough though that I will probably take note of the new East African time rather than the Central African time. Time to sleep.

DAY 72 SATURDAY 18th FEBRUARY 2017. MWANZA, TANZANIA

The little blue bike has done well today, bbattling along for over 150 more miles across the top pf Tanzania. It was a long slog, but there wasn’t much to attract or delay me, just mile upon mile of quite attractive green bush country. The early part of the ride was hilly, the hills flattening out into gentle rises and falls towards afternoon. For much of the day my road seemed to weave miraculously around and between thick grey clouds that always seemed to threaten rain, but happily never dropped any on me. Later, it became a sparkling afternoon with that ‘big sky’ I associate so much with Africa. We blew along at 45 to 50mph for much of the way – after the first forty miles…

This is the main road in this part of Tanzania and I was horrified, some five kilometres out of Biharamulo when I turned at a signed junction for Mwanza, and a few hundred yards later was on a derelict, rutted and pitted gravel road. If this was to last until Mwanza I doubted my sanity in selecting to return to Kenya by Tanzania. Twenty kilometres of this punishment gave way to the preparations for a new road, fairly smooth, level hard dirt, interrupted, as they do, by speed humps of piles of gravel that had to be negotiated every few hundred yards. It was wearing. These surfaces take plenty of concentration, but it was better, at least, than yesterday’s killer potholes. I’m always conscious, on these roads, that even a small mistake could end my journey quite badly! Still, I am used to that by now and also to riding on all sorts of surfaces. After 35 miles the new road began, smooth tarmac all the way to Mwanza! A great relief.

I batted along, stopping for a flask of African tea (but being served a flask of hot water and a tin of the most disgusting, cheap coffee powder! Sometimes you just have to accept fate here in Africa) in a bustling ribbon of town that I cannot name as I am still not back on any map in my bag. Tomorrow should see that occurrence, fortunately. I feel so lost without a map.

About thirty kilometres before Mwanza I enjoyed a break while I took a car ferry across an arm of Lake Victoria – which only came in sight a short way before the ferry. The slowest car ferry in the world took half an hour to cross the calm water, not more than a mile wide, a pleasant break for me and fun to be on Lake Victoria for a short time. The traffic on the other side, it was now five o’clock, was less enjoyable, but I ride like an African now so was soon through it and circuiting Mwanza in search of a place to sleep. I wanted to be on the lakeside but those hotels were expensive $50 places (I’m always suspicious when I am quoted in American dollars, and the one that attracted me, being a Chinese owned hotel, would not bargain, I knew. The Chinese run their businesses with rods of unsmiling iron and would allow no mere black African the right to negotiate). Eventually, I found a place for £6.50 – hot and stuffy – and went back to the smart Chinese place for supper and a beer on the side of the lake. Well, my eyes’ll be shut for nine hours, so why pay for a view? I can always go back for an African tea – or an instant coffee, you take pot luck – in the morning to enjoy the view for about thirty bob!

Actually, the view is rather good. Mwanza is attractively situated in an area full of those odd, smooth, balanced rocks that teeter atop one another in crazy giant’s play-brick heaps. Some buildings have been attached to them here and there and many stand along the shore, some with feet in the lake or with attractive clipped grass around them. Those were surrounded by wedding picture groups this Saturday afternoon. Small ferries come and go to islands out in the lake, splashing past the shoreline hotels and gardens of this, one of Tanzania’s biggest towns and its major lake port.

*

It was already eleven when I finally left the ‘boma’ in Biharamulo. I awoke to bright sunshine and then a knock on my door to say that Solveig was preparing breakfast for me, a kind gesture from fellow travellers. We exchanged views and ideas for the better part of three hours, sharing so many opinions and loves of Africa, and agreeing how much better we enjoy being older as travellers. Solvieg (her parents were Norwegian) is full of life, a cheerful person and outgoing. I rather hope they’ll keep in touch now and again, and maybe I will one day see them in the Western Cape, except it seems that their chosen travel time is much the same as mine and their travels subsidised by renting their seaside house in Gordons Bay to English people for winter. It’s fun to meet people on the road for, of course, we tend to share views of life thanks to our chosen way of spending so much of our time and money.

My muscles are getting very fidgety. I sat for about six hours on that not very comfortable little bike in a lot of very fresh Equatorial air – and the mozzies are eating me alive. Time to get out of the bar and under the net. My motorbike is next to the reception desk tonight!

DAY 73 SUNDAY 19th FEBRUARY 2017. MUSOMA, TANZANIA

Another slog across the top of Tanzania. Today it took all my stubbornness after a night of bad sleep. My room was very hot, the fan rattled and shook and a cheap hotel on a Saturday night is seldom a place of peace, with doors banging and people shut out of rooms in the middle of the night trying to wake drunken partners, such that in the end I was reduced to ear plugs. All that and I ate too much too late last night. So today was a bit of a struggle of mind over strength. But it ended well.

The road was generally empty and the landscape became flatter and drier as I rode eastwards, punctuated by many straggly villages of mud-walled houses and zinc or palm roofs behind dusty roadsides. Huge herds of cows were driven along the roadsides for this is Mara country, the home of cattle-herders. A couple of more sizeable towns were a bit more colourful and the heat under the sun was oppressive but clouds filled enough of the sky to provide a good deal of shade today. It was, though, a long 120 miles.

By only mid-afternoon I was approaching Musoma, now coming back up the east side of Lake Victoria towards the Kenyan border, another hundred or so miles to the north. I had decided to stop at Musoma and relax for the afternoon, hoping I’d find a quiet, pleasant hotel for the night. Four kilometres short of the town I saw a smallish, plush looking hotel standing back from the road amongst trees and behind it I could see a garden stretching down to the lake shore. I turned around to investigate, without even continuing to the town to check other options. I was warmly welcomed by the manager, Steven, who understood by my weary, dusty state that a glass of juice would help, whether I stayed or not, a kindly gesture that persuaded me to take a room. I’ve an enormous room, with bathroom and a bizarre, flouncy and over the top bed (sometimes African taste can be so dreadful!) for £15. By 3.30 I was ensconced in the gardens at the back, with Lake Victoria stirred to choppiness by the strong wind that had bugged me for the last fifty miles of my 120 mile ride.

Soon after lunch – a mere literary expression, since I haven’t had such a thing for the past six weeks; I always go from breakfast to supper unfed when I am on these journeys, mainly because I doubt I’d find anything to attract me in the way of a snack – soon after what would have been lunchtime if I took it, I passed the far western end of the great Serengeti Plains. Perhaps one of the best known, most visited African locations, it stretches eastwards from Lake Victoria for hundreds of miles. My experience lasted about ten miles. I’d have liked to see the ‘herds of wildebeests’ that are not visible from TQ9 (my Torquay postcode!) but all I saw was a few grazing antelopes and a handful of bison of some sort. My, it was flat! I am really quite happy that I and my motorbike can’t cross that vast plain. Anyway, it probably costs an arm and a couple of legs to pay the entrance fee, were I allowed to. Solveig and Ian were laughing yesterday at the ridiculous charges these countries have imposed on foreign tourists to get into national parks. “We come from South Africa! We have pretty much the best parks and they don’t cost anything like here! We haven’t been paying for any either!”

*

These past three days I have met few people who speak English. I assume that not many wazungus come this way. Around here they are more likely with the proximity to the Masai Mara and Serengeti but where I have been there’s not a lot of reason for casual tourists to pass, only ‘overlanders’ like me. I find it disappointing when I can’t communicate. After all, I come on these journeys to meet and talk to people, maybe that’s why I have enjoyed southern Africa so well these past years for there the majority speak English.

This hotel, the Mara Paradise (a slight over statement!) is run by some church or other – the Africa Inland Church, it appears. Beer is only available by order from outside! The bishop doesn’t approve, apparently. I checked with Steven that I wouldn’t offend the bishop if I ordered a bottle, and here I sit in the garden as my supper is prepared. I shall sleep even earlier than usual tonight, my strength is at a very low ebb!

DAY 74 MONDAY 20th FEBRUARY 2017. MBITA, KENYA

One of the real joys of life is to enjoy a good night’s sleep. You’ll never catch me admitting to any infirmity of age, but I guess I AM getting older and a long day’s ride after unsatisfying sleep, such as I had in Mwanza, perhaps has more effect than it did twenty years ago! That’s as near an admission as I will make.

*

I’m back in Kenya tonight. I’ve been ‘on the road’ for 44 days so far and have only about 14 left. Over the next couple of days I will complete my circuit of Lake Victoria. Tonight finds me on just about the most easterly extreme of the lake, on a large gulf that penetrates eastwards from the lake. I am heading northwards towards Kisumu, a large town in western Kenya. Mbita is a small town at the causeway that connects Rasinga Island to the mainland. It’s an unusually expensive area; finding an affordable place to sleep was tiresome. In one ‘resort’ they wanted an unnegotiable £29 to sleep in a tent! Other quite dingy places asked me £23 for places I’d turn my nose up at for £15 elsewhere in Kenya, but I finally haggled my best room yet for a one third discount at £16 – my budget. I’ve a room in a newish hotel that hasn’t yet had time to deteriorate (almost ALL the bathroom fittings work, even if there’s no loo seat. Better than the one last night with a crack in it that viciously nipped your bum!). It’s on the top floor with a balcony and a pretty spectacular lake vista, plus as it’s a corner room, a view across the small town, with the sea on both sides of the causeway. I’m sitting now in the yard at the back with a much-needed Tusker. In a couple of years the yard will be disguised by bushes and bourganvillea but for now it is rather exposed to the dusty track behind the hotel. Maybe in Africa it’ll only take a year; things grow so fast here, given some water.

Parts of my journey today were through handsome scenery, others rather tedious dry bush country. With the lake on my left all the way, at one point I climbed through some hills with astoundingly long views down onto the plains of what eventually becomes the Serengeti and Masia Mara. The hills were scattered with those odd upstanding and balanced rocks that must, I suppose, have been left behind in some ice age by gigantic glaciers. As I rode I realised that the rocks are granite of some sort, for I passed many people engaged, with fire and hammers, in breaking stones. Here and there men tended fires to heat the rocks and split them asunder. In other places women and men sat atop small piles of grey stones wielding hammers, endlessly breaking stones into smaller stones. Imagine having to make a living this way. I can’t… In Western countries we used to use this activity as a punishment for criminals; here it is a way of earning enough to eke out a minimal existence in rural Africa: breaking rocks to afford dry maize to make an unappetising meal of ughali and meagre vegetables; to live in a room of mud, sticks and straw; sleep on a piece of thin, stained foam – or a hard mat of reeds; and die at fifty – if you’re lucky. Travelling in Africa: once again I feel so glad that I can come and look and go away, back to my very privileged life.

*

Oh SHIT! I am within a couple of hundred metres of a bloody mosque!!!!! Aaaaaarrrgggghhhhh, Alllllllaaaaaaaaahhhawwwaaaawwwaawwaaabbbaaaagggaaa, Allllllaaaaaahhhh, eeeeeekkeeekeeaaalallllaaaaaa! Waaaaaaaaa, aaaaaaaaaah, waaaaaaa, eeeeaaaaaahhhhhh! How can this awful drone and tuneless noise be WORSHIP? Gosh, it’s so drearily dismal. The local muezzin gets ‘Nil points’ for his intonation of the bleak and dispiriting prayers. It’s such a joyless, wretched noise! Allluuuuuaaah Ackbaaaar! Uuuuuuaaaallllaaaahh…. woooowwwwwoo ackbaaaar! I’ve heard this prayer so many times, often in the middle of the bloody night, and it only gets worse…

Ear plugs then, tonight…

*

It was with a small sense of relief that I got out of Tanzania. There were traffic policemen everywhere – with, it must be admitted, reasonable driving standards, for traffic slows for all speed limits as fines are quickly and efficiently imposed. I certainly notice the very bad driving in Kenya where speed is all, despite the national obsession with spring-breaking speed humps. The traffic laws of Tanzania are being upheld by large numbers of police and it’s working. Perhaps Kenya could employ more traffic cops and less speed humps. But Kenyan police would need a purge first for they are sadly so corrupt. But my relief wasn’t at getting away from speed traps and policemen – in a way, I welcomed THEM! No, it was that I travelled across 500 miles of that country uninsured. I doubt the insurance would have been worth much more than the paper on which it was written, but I do try to avoid any excuse for policemen to hassle me on my travels, and I was stopped a few times, fortunately only for a look at my license.

*

A sudden violent storm has blown up. Frequent power cuts are at least interrupting the muezzin, such that over dinner I got a fit of giggles that I tried to suppress so as not to give offence. I’ve come back up to my room in the top of this tower of a building, the highest in town. Shoddily built, even in a new hotel none of the windows fit very well, there’s no window catches on the windward side, so I’ve tied them with socks to muffle the muezzin. I just ate supper downstairs in the sort of well around which the hotel is built – so that the noise of the interminable TV, for every activity in most of Africa is accompanied by TV (whatever happened to silence?) – echoes up and down the hotel. When Fred, the receptionist with whom I had negotiated, opened my room for me, he immediately switched on the TV, as if I would be desperate for some crap, facile, mind-numbing ‘entertainment’. For supper I ate tilapia since I am opposite the biggest lake in Africa. Tilapia with shredded green spinach and stodgy ughali. A nutritious meal, but I hate eating with my fingers. However, my pride as an experienced traveller won’t allow me to ask for a knife and fork! Since childhood, my mother used to say, I was always washing my hands, and to this day I have a deep distaste of grease on my fingers. Try eating tilapia with THAT handicap! When in Rome…

*

The lights are going on and off like a glitterball just now, strobing with the intense wind that is buffeting the hotel. Once again, I don’t mind rain while I am drinking my evening beer. Let it rain! So long as tomorrow the sun shines as usual.

I passed no less than eight dead dogs on the road today, surely a record? All dogs in Africa seem to be of one generic breed, pointed nose, sharp ears, long legs and skinny bodies – not attractive animals, and almost none of them kept as pets. Life’s too demanding for that luxury.

Wow! This is a dramatic storm! How great to be indoors with such a view when the lightning comes. The room’s dark as the power’s off but electricity lights the sky and the almost invisible lake behind a wall of rain that roars on the steel roof overhead and courses down the ill-fitting patio doors to the rain-slashed, wind-lashed balcony, where the wicker chair has impaled itself against the railings. I shall sleep with the curtains open to the balcony tonight and have that view of Lake Victoria to wake to. Haha! Life’s good sometimes!

Oh, except the moaning of the dismal muezzin will probably beat the sun to it, wailing next door… Well, ear plugs won’t spoil the view.

DAY 75 TUESDAY 21st FEBRUARY 2017. KERICHO, KENYA

What ear plugs can do for muezzins and cockerels, they sadly fail to do for the base beat of the mechanical modern ‘music’ largely created by sound engineers, not by anyone with compositional talents, that pound on until one in the morning. “Oh, Africans, they like it like that,” said Fred, with an unapologetic laugh when I suggested it might be antisocial and he should consider shooting the people by the lakeside. I have frequently found that most people in Africa have a FAR higher tolerance for noise than me. I have seen them sit a few feet from wardrobe-sized vibrating speakers while I was physically distressed yards away. Is it any physiological difference in our ears or just me being weak?

A case in point tonight in Kericho. I have had to retreat into the bar of the hotel from the balcony to keep warm. Bass-tuned speakers are pumping out ‘music’ of sorts PLUS the TV is blaring at the same time in the same room. Three TVs, to be precise, tuned to two different channels!

So another disturbed sleep last night. Being one of the world’s lightest sleepers AND a world traveller is difficult. Fortunately, tonight I am at the furthest corner of the hotel from this bar.

*

Circling around in Kericho, tea capital of Kenya, looking for an affordable hotel, it was again difficult. “You won’t find anything for your budget here! Kericho is growing so fast and there are no good places that cheap. You might get a place in the centre of town, but it won’t be a good place!” one receptionist in an overpriced tarty place dismissed my chances.

‘Huh! You don’t know me!’ I thought and rode out of town a couple of kilometres and found a perfectly acceptable place for a fraction over a tenner, including breakfast and hot water, well below even my budget.

*

I’ve left Lake Victoria and its clammy heat and mosquitoes and ridden somewhat inland and 900 cooler metres higher to the amazingly fertile hills of Kericho, surrounded by the beauty of tea estates. These are the biggest estates and this area produces much of Kenya’s tea, and Kenya is the third largest tea producer in the world. Here there is a microclimate such that rain falls most afternoons, producing just the conditions for tea propagation but not for motorcycle touring, but once again I was safely in the hotel before the rain came, all but a few drops as I rode about the well developed town, complete with a range of high rise buildings that I don’t remember being here fifteen years ago.

*

Well, I have braved the outside terrace again! The pounding of the music and the confusion of the TV as well was just too much for sensitive me. I’ve fetched my fleece and jacket instead. Everyone around me is extremely friendly, many making formal greetings, handshakes and name swapping, as is the very polite Kenyan way. It’s interesting, I am communicating so much more on a very human level now I am back in Kenya – as, indeed I enjoyed so much in Uganda. Rwanda and Tanzania just don’t have that outgoing, congenial habit. As customers pass me here, they give me a big, happy smile in greeting and make some congenial aside. Yes, I am happy to be back with gregarious people. I so love to travel in places where I am able to connect and interact so simply, on equal terms and with wide smiles and kindness and politeness. Kenyans, like Ugandans, always react to a smile! It’s simplistic to make judgements on four days’ experience, but I didn’t find the northern Tanzanians very receptive to my approaches, and as for Rwandans, I just felt as if I was such an unknown that I might be from another planet. Kenyans are urbane, generally quite well educated and familiar and confident with English. We can joke together; maybe THAT’S what I’ve been missing! So much of casual social intercourse requires that jocular familiarity that really only comes when two peoples share an understanding of language.

*

My ride was pleasant enough, the lake away to my left much of the way, passing through straggly villages with hills to the right hand horizon. It was warm and the traffic light as I was on a B road until I intersected one of the main north/ south highways, which was actually narrower and older than the roads of the morning. At the junction I stopped for a flask of tea (yes, Alice, tea!) at a roadside food kiosk, serving the usual fare of ughali, chapatis, goat and oily vegetables. The business was run by Agneta, a smiling matronly woman with a cheery red cap. Refreshed by her brew, we chatted a bit and she told me of a fine short cut from where I was to Kericho; a lovely minor road that climbed into the forests, back to the Kenya Highlands that are so attractive, and ultimately to the hills of brilliance; the carpets of luxurious tea bushes that cloak the hills amongst tall dark conifers, some of East Africa’s finest scenery. As I was leaving Agneta she insisted, as is often the way, that she should give me her ‘contacts’, and wrote her phone number on a scrap of paper. “Call me when you are in Kericho!” she suggested, the mobile phone here being virtually a body part now. In fact, I did send her a text message thanking her for her reviving tea and the short cut. Thus did I comply with Kenyan social etiquette.

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The hotel staff are all charming too: Ruto, the receptionist; Patrick, the cook, congenial, polite young men amused to have a mzungu guest. My piki-piki is right in the heart of the building and my room on the second floor at the back. The only drawback to my peace is a bloody speed hump, the Kenyan obsession, over which the many lorries that ply this rather busy road rattle and bounce. Oh well, ear plugs again!