EPISODE EIGHT. February 14th to March 5th. AFRICAN BUREAUCRACY, RETURN TO UGANDA, MAKING PAINT AND WILL-IT-OR-WON’T IT BE A LONGER STAY IN AFRICA..?

It’s another bumper episode, I’m afraid. I am reliant on internet connections, and there’s none – as you’ll read – in Sipi. So, sit back and relax for some armchair travel, the good and the sometimes challenging. But that’s the travelling life..! Here’s my story of the past three weeks:

JB gets a head shave – and, terrified of his mzungu uncle, allows me near enough to take the photo. We are making progress.

Generally, I reckon to get one thing done in a day in Africa. Better to hope for that than the frustration that sets in when trying to achieve anything that entertains any bureaucratic necessity… So it was with surprise that Thursday and Friday (Feb 18 and 19) went so efficiently. Wishing to return to Sipi, Uganda, to keep my promise to Alex and Precious, I needed another Coronavirus test to get across the border. Adelight phoned acquaintances in Kitale to enquire where I should go to get the test. “Oh, our machine is broken!” exclaimed a nurse friend. (‘Machine’? What machine is used for the PCR test?). None of the doctors’ surgeries – mainly private – carried out the test. In the end, I said, “I may as well ride to the border and ask the horse’s mouth, the medical officer of health…” On Thursday, I rode the 30 appallingly dusty miles, to be welcomed back by all the officials at the remote border post. “Their ‘machine’s’ not broken, the doctors are on strike!” proclaimed the medical officer. 

“It’s so nice you all recognise me!” I commented to Juma, from Immigration. “But I suppose there aren’t many mzungus on motorbikes these days…”

“No, it’s only you. There was another mzungu about two months ago coming from Uganda by matatu, but now it’s just you!”

The medical officer said I must go to a hospital in Eldoret, the busy, scruffy city 50 miles down-country from Kitale.

*

On Friday I rode to Eldoret, a risky process on the main trans-East Africa highway that brings all the goods to Uganda and Rwanda from the coastal docks. It’s the top end of the road on which I chickened out of the ride to the coast ten days ago. Not quite so lethal, but not much fun. After two attempts on my life, I preferred to return by the longer route that curves across country away from the busy highway. Twenty kilometres longer and 102 speed humps in 85 kilometres, but not murderous.

“No, the man who does the tests is not here,” said a nurse whom I buttonholed. 

“But I just rode the dangerous road from Kitale specifically to get tested!” I wailed in disappointment. A very helpful young male nurse took up my case. There was a man – on his phone contacts simply called ‘Philip Covid’ – at the general hospital who might help me. He phoned Philip Covid on my behalf, sent a photo of my passport to him and directed me to find the hospital in the very centre of the traffic-clogged mess of Eldoret.

Sometimes I quite enjoy the anarchy of African traffic. I am on a very manoeuvrable machine, better aware than all the boda-boda boys and can treat a ride in such conditions like a rather exhilarating computer game! Weaving and ducking, accelerating into gaps, ignoring every traffic rule of Kenya and all the European regulations inculcated in 43 years of riding mainly lawfully, I made my way to the centre of the city and the general hospital. I phoned ‘Philip Covid’ from the rocky car park. “You can’t miss me, I’m the only mzungu here.”

Philip and his two colleagues, Matthew and Daniel, were charming and efficient. In minutes the swab was taken in the car park: “We do it in an open space!” and we chatted in their office as Matthew filled in my details on his computer. “We’ll email the result tomorrow.” I paid the 5000 bob (£34) fee – which seemed to be a sum that Philip thought up, rather than a regular charge. “Will that be alright? The private clinics can charge up to 8000…” I didn’t tell him I paid £120 for a much lesser service in England. I gave the three men a further 600 shillings (about £4) and asked them to have a beer on me after duty. “Next time you come to Eldoret you must come and find us, and we will buy YOU a beer! We are so happy too see you enjoying yourself. Old men of your age just look after cattle here in Kenya! They can’t do what you are doing!” Always the wonder at my years. 

I roared through a few side streets to the Immigration Office to get information about how to extend my visa, and was on my way back out of town by 1.15. I’d taken a book to read, even my toothbrush in case I was kept waiting all day in offices and maybe even overnight to achieve my business. Kenya can sometimes pull out the stops and has perhaps one of the best infrastructures in this part of Africa. I was on the road, away from the horrors of Eldoret, a city I try to avoid, and home by three o’clock. Philip Covid promised that I would receive the result on Saturday. 

*

A chameleon adapts its colour even to a pine tree. This one is a journey upwards.

In Kitale I try to take a walk every afternoon, an hour or sometimes two. There are rural areas close by, down behind the house. People greet the mzungu as I walk. I excite the children. A couple of women are often milking their cows down there. A muscled young fellow, covered in lather, bathed naked in a stream one afternoon, just a big white smile over his shoulder in a completely lathered head, washing away the sweat from a hard day hacking at a large field with a mattock. Schoolchildren come from school. The greeting down here is, “I am fine!”, usually the reply to the well known salutation, “How are you..?” Education levels down in these hamlets are very low, and English little known. Men cut old trees, chain saws wielded without the slightest protection, not even goggles, chips flying, flip-flops and wellies, office trousers and fast rotating killer blades. The planks they are making from the freshly cut wood can almost be watched warping and twisting as they dry in the hot afternoon sunlight. A couple of crested cranes stilt-walk about a newly ploughed field, dipping like car window toys. Bright birds flit and flute, a flash of electric blue, a scrap of brilliant yellow, a dash of red breast. Two rodents scavenge at the side of the red dust track, unaware of my proximity for a moment. It’s peaceful – and I feel the sunlight and warmth in my bones, the relaxation, the strength from constant exercise, my posture. What will I do, I wonder as I walk, when I get too old to do this? It’s on its way; however I fool myself that I am invincible, I can’t delay old age. It’s inevitable. But here, in Africa, I don’t feel aware of it as I do at home. One of the secrets is being surrounded by young people. Of course I am: I’m already 10 years beyond average life expectancy here. Less than 4% of people make it beyond 65. I’m almost 72! This is as near eternal youth as I’ll find. “Most men of your age in Kenya can’t do more than care for their cattle.” Daniel said – as I took my Covid test so I can ride my motorcycle on the appalling 90 mile, rutted, rock-strewn trail around the mountain slopes to Uganda at the weekend. 

It’s amusing how intrusive strangers can be in Africa: down in the fields a car stops – it actually carries the tree cutters, I later find. A face peers out of the driver’s window. “How OLD are you?” he asks in a manner that in Europe would be impolite, but here is just natural curiosity. I satisfy his enquiry. “You look younger… Thank you.” And they drive away without further comment, leaving me chuckling. I love curiosity in people. Why not ask what intrigues you? Why be polite and courteous if you’re interested in the answer?

*

It’s about 90 miles from Kitale to Sipi, of which perhaps 25 are tarred to date. The weather forecast for days – I’ve been watching it carefully – has been for rain on Sunday 21st, but then, on Saturday the rain symbols disappear and the prediction is just for cloud and 24 degrees, a fine temperature for my hard effort on this road. But on the day, it’s sunny most of the way, and if this is 24 degrees, then I’m a Dutchman. It’s HOT riding. I’m shading red with dust as I leap and dance on the little bike, sweating in my riding clothes, enjoying the journey as I enjoy few others in Africa. I ride in a chorus of excited children: “Mzunguuuu! Mzunguuuu!” waving and jumping up and down, running from their doors in glee. Not many of us pass this way: “There was a mzungu about two months ago,” says Juma, the immigration officer at the border. I look over his shoulder as he enters my details in a ledger. We are looking for my last exit to Uganda. I spot my signature near the bottom of the page. Since I passed through Suam’s remote border on January 8th, only eight vehicles have been registered in the ledger! Eight in over six weeks! Not surprising they all remember me at the border posts. I’m something of a celebrity. 

Suam international border post from the Kenyan side.

It’s simple this time, my Covid test clutched in my hand. There’s a potentially edgy moment when the medical officer says, “Yes, but this is a photocopy. Where’s the original?” I have to explain that I had to ride 100 miles to get the test and actually, this is not just a photocopy but a photograph of the document taken with ‘Philip Covid’s’ camera in Eldoret, sent by Whatsapp to Adelight’s phone, shared to Rico’s phone and then emailed to me to take to a printer in Kitale town to make me these copies! The explanation is so intricate that he gives up and accepts the slightly out of focus print with grace. The important details: my passport number, the date and the word ‘negative’ are all legible. 

They all know me at this border and I know all the intricacies. We’re soon done, with a few chats on the way. “You are done! You can go!” I’m in Uganda again. The woman police officer tells me she’s looking for a mzungu husband and asks if I’m interested? The same old half-joke that so many try. She pulls the log speared with six inch nails away from the track and I am free to ride the ruts and potholes away from the border post. Outside the gate – never closed since the hinges failed years back – I am instantly in the meagre outpost of Suam town. It exists only because of the border and is a collection of mean tin shacks and ugly concrete lock-ups painted in the lurid colours of mobile phone companies. The road, such as it is, is awful: all corrugations of dry mud, potholes and filth on the hill through the rough town. I accelerate away gratefully and head into Uganda. There’s some sort of habitation most of the way now alongside the track – rough shacks and mud and stick homes, small shambas of matoke bananas amongst waving eucalyptus. People everywhere, especially children, here where so many have ten and fifteen children, living on the very edge of visible poverty. Friendly though; constant waving and a thousand greetings will accompany me on the miles around the slopes of Mount Elgon. 

Soon I wend my way through the biggest town en route, Bukwo. It has one of the worst ‘roads’ in Africa, far worse than anything you can imagine reading this. It’s a trials section: rocks, dust, steep slopes, debris and holes. It’s the somewhat informally planned town’s main street. They must vote for the wrong politicians here: this feels like a perceptible punishment of the townspeople, leaving their main thoroughfare in this condition. I stand up on the foot-pegs to make my way through the scruffy town, a layer of dust on everything, debris lining the track, rocky steps and hummocks; my wheels slewing left and right, the rear of my bike leaping up to bump my backside as my knees do their best to grip the sides of the seat. It’s exhilarating too, in its way. People stare, wave, laugh, call out. I’ve done this so much now that I can even sometimes take one hand off the bars to wave back! I reckon I’d make a trials rider after all my African experience.

The road from Suam around Mount Elgon, my favourite.

The track climbs out of Bukwo, onto the best part of the ride. A mile or two on I’m battered but smiling as the road zigzags up a steep white rock hill, climbing quickly. A truck is stuck in a huge rut at a compromising angle. Its driver and assistant and a few hangers-on are looking bemused, wondering how to release it. It was trying to get up a big rock step and failed, obviously slipping back into the deep gulley that drainage has formed at the side of the trail. They’ll be here some hours. There’s just enough space for me to squeeze past, bouncing up the rocky step, wheel spinning; the men grinning and shouting encouragement that I can hear through my ear plugs. No one gets very phased or angry about these incidents on this appalling track. What’s the point? It’s obvious that now the authorities are building the new road – from the other end: we’ve still at least 35 miles to go to get to anything resembling a real road, and then it’ll just be graded loose earth – it’s obvious they’ve stopped maintaining this track. Problem is, it’ll be three or four years before the roadworks get as far as this… 

On a small plateau, where the trail makes a big rocky loop, I stop to rest, enjoy the view, phone Rico and the family in Kitale to tell them I made it into Uganda, and to text Alex that I am now on my way. I drink some of my water, greet a woman in Sunday clothes who appears from nowhere, apparently on the way to nowhere, probably coming from some tin church of some self-proclaimed pastor on the slopes, hopefully feeling uplifted by the ranting and raucous hymn singing. Then Hudson stops; I’m never alone for long in Uganda. He’s on a 125 piki-piki, on his way to a photocopier in Bukwo, below us in the heat haze. He works for the forestry department and we discuss the fact that the fine forest through which this track wove its cool, shady way a few miles on, has been decimated and the wood sold to Kenya. It’s just stumps now and ugly. It was the best part of the journey three years ago. “We looked at taking them to court. It’s completely unsustainable, what they’ve done, but you know, with Ugandan laws and corruption…” His voice tails off at the impossibility of holding anyone to account in this desperately corrupt country. “They say they will replant, but we see no sign of it…” Hudson hopes, as do so many in this country reduced to poverty by bad governance and dishonourable politicians, that I can find him a sponsor to help him set up some project. I have to deflect these appeals constantly. We swap email addresses, for he’s an educated, decent sort of chap, but even as I write my address I know I will be parrying requests in day to come. 

What a ride! An uplifting sense of freedom.

We part and I ride on, ricochetting and gambolling about the rocks and stones of the steep hills. There’s about five hours of this exercise. It’s not a lot better when I meet the road builders coming the other way, for then I need extreme concentration – in the light of many other calls on my attention: people waving, cattle wandering the earthy road, children shouting. The loose surface over the hard packed earth is even worse. It rolls about beneath my wheels, threatening to unseat me any time. The first few miles of it are on soft earth, and that’s horrible, my arms locked to control the weaving wheel. Finally, the last 25 kilometres to Kapchorwa are on the new tar – except where  the unsmiling Chinese engineers are still constructing the bridges, where diversions have been ploughed through the surrounding fields. Even in Kapchorwa, the regional capital, another sprawling place of earthen embankments, concrete lock-ups, mobile company advertising and a few banks and offices lining broken red earth roads, the pain doesn’t end. They are now resurfacing the ten miles to Sipi through the impressive, sweeping hills. More loose surfaces and hold ups.

I arrive in Sipi exhausted. I’ve just undertaken about 60 or more miles of serious trail riding, in some places trials riding, the difference being, if you’re not a biker: trials riding is short sections of awkward terrain filled with technically challenging riding, where the competition is to get through the section without putting your feet to the floor, while trail riding is just plummeting along on unmade tracks – roughly what I’ve been doing most of the time since I left Kitale almost seven hours ago.

*

Wails of delight and Precious’s helicoptering arms announce my arrival. Alex is a little more restrained, but I can see his warm pleasure too. His sisters, Doreen and Helen are visiting with various children this afternoon. It’s a big reception. “Bring Jonathan a chair!” Alex calls to one of the children.

Stretching out the old mzungu after the exhausting ride!

“Huh! I need more than THAT!” I exclaim, collapsing on the scant grass on my back. Everyone’s amused and starts to grip my arms and legs, pulling them to stretch me out to ease my pent up muscles. There’s great hilarity and I love the overflowing welcome that they all give so generously. I wonder if eastern Uganda really IS the friendliest place on Earth? It often feels that way. Desperately poor, not much ‘developed’, scratching an existence amongst some of Africa’s worst corruption, the second ‘youngest’ demography of the world, over-populated, poor infrastructure, with appalling pollution and even worse politics, its people are exceptional. High amongst my favourites. 

*

Keilah, little JB and Precious. For all the privations, presentation is still considered…

Another proof of that emotional generosity and honesty comes in naming your child after a guest and taking that visitor as a family member. Having another Jonathan, ‘JB’ around is a bit confusing, but in a touching way. Now he’s often nicknamed ‘Beans’ by his parents. “Oh, people ask!” says Alex. “I have to explain that on the day he was born, Precious was cooking beans! Hahaha!”

It’s a pity the child is so terrified of the mzungu and breaks into wails, hiding behind his parents or sister whenever I approach… Not easy to bond with a two year old who screams when he sees me. 

*

“OK, we are going to run a European worksite here!” I declared to Alex looking over his 1818 bar and coffee shop that is slowly developing, mainly with my sponsorship. I can see that the Ugandan workers he’s employed have little pride in their work and leave the workplace without cleaning up. It’s a shambles of shavings, dust and off-cuts. “They just want their money and go!” says Alex. So we started with an hour’s sweeping and tidying. 

Our task – my task – is to decorate the quirky, twisted timbers of the upper level of his bar on stilts. Since I left, he’s had stone walls built to support the heavy structure. If you recollect, he started his project with much enthusiasm but the wrong way round. In effect he built the roof without considering the foundations! You don’t build a stilt structure in Africa and rely on the tree trunks for strength: the termites will soon eat the supports… As, indeed, they have in places already in the two years he has been building. The stone walls are an improvement, although I can see they have been constructed by ‘masons’ without knowledge of the basic mechanics of building, of bonding courses and creating strong corners – but it’s a lot stronger than the structure that relied chiefly on hope and prayer. 

Carpentry is crude. There are few tools, and what there are are coarse and the timber available is little more than firewood. There’s not a power tool within miles, just old bendy saws much sharpened and a panga (cutlass) for shaping and ‘planing’ wood to shape. Wood is straight from the tree – well ‘straight’ in one sense only. Twisted, bark-covered posts resembling a corkscrew, chewed with a panga to make a door frame. A four inch nail is used as a chisel or drill to make a hole for the door lock. The lock is nailed into the door with three inch nails, the protruding ends bent and hammered into the varnished front of the door. It’s pitiful. 

Alex prepares pigment from soil. A new skill!

We are going to create our own paints from local earth. The only paints available here, and in much of Africa, are crude colours, many made in China or by an off-shoot of some multinational company here in Uganda. They are quite expensive – which is why most buildings remain unpainted stained mud and concrete, except in the lurid colours sponsored by mobile phone companies and the ubiquitous villains of the Coca Cola Corporation. I have introduced the old scenery making technique of using PVA for just about everything. We create, very dirtily, a blend of PVA, water and earth, enthusiastically sifted through old mosquito netting by me and a group of cheerful small children. Owing to the corrupt politics and the recent election no child is in school. No one can explain why, but all schools are closed – this in a country struggling with low levels of education. One useless, ancient president, ‘advised’ by a mafia-style coterie of corrupt fat men, has this country in its grips. They care not a jot for their people, only for personal wealth and advancement. It’s amongst the most shameful regimes on a continent infamous for failed and failing politics. Many – probably most – support the ‘mzee’ (Old Man) Museveni, now seated back in power in Kampala, wearing his ridiculous trademark big-brimmed hat, but do not rationalise that one crook making all life’s decisions for now 35 years institutionalises the system. Where there has been no opportunity for dissent for so long, power is grabbed by the ruthless and no new systems are able to flourish. This poor country is in such a mess. I feel so sorry for earnest, honest young people like Alex, with his dreams trapped in this downward spiral, his country hijacked by the ruthless dishonesty and self-interest of a few. It’s in the interests of those men to keep their people uneducated. They’re easily manipulated.

We sourced three different shades of soil: the dark red earth from the foot of the 1818 bar, red earth from the bottom of the deep pit now dug for a new latrine at the bottom of the property, and an orangey soil that Alex spotted nearby. A bucket of each was broken up and sifted by me and my team of small – out-of-school – helpers. Then we mixed big cooking pots of our colours. I’d bought paintbrushes in Kitale – Kenya has much better products and more availability than the dirt cheap items available in rural Uganda. Sometimes Kenya and Uganda seem far apart in infrastructure and development for such near neighbours. 

*

Mud fish for supper…

Exposing myself to this sort of life, that led by billions around the world beyond the privileged confines of our riches, is self-illuminating. It’s not comfortable and there’s much I dislike about it, and then despise myself for my complaints. My hosts, Alex and Precious, treat me as a very special guest, making life as easy and agreeable as they know how. But they can’t alter the physical deprivation of their lives. They buy me pineapples, cook extravagant foods, make quantities of fresh passion juice, look after me as a ‘slebrity’, pander to my whims and are deeply respectful of all the help I provide them. 

But they can’t take away the MUD, the dust, the lack of gutters, the basic wood and corrugated iron pit-latrine, the smoke from their cooking fire around which we sit of an evening, our feet in brown puddles. I wash in cold water in a bowl on the cement floor, then must paddle about cold dirty water on the concrete floor and carry the wet dust to bed. Frequently I must eat with my fingers, and I abhor grease on my skin (my mother told me how I frequently washed my hands as a child – odd behaviour!). The rat in the roof thatch of my round room scratches and scampers overhead in the night. The roof leaks in heavy rain: it needs a new layer of grass. Working with Chinese paintbrushes that fall to pieces. Watching the carpenter use a panga (machete) as a planer, everything crooked, not a wood screw in sight, using firewood to build a bar, nails to fix hinges and door locks. Smoke in my eyes. The smell of smoke on all my clothes. Ants and mosquitoes. Seeing nothing in the dark, for there is only basic electric light: a dim bulb in my room but none where we eat by the fire in the kitchen yard. The massacre of ancient trees, the visual pollution, the unawareness of natural beauty. Screaming children, barking dogs, crowing cockerels. The plastic and garbage in every hedge and field; total lack of awareness of what’s happening to our planet by their forced exploitation – and the ballooning population, just about the youngest average age of any country in the world: 15.7 years… 

 And they can’t take away all these petty discomforts for they lack the one commodity required… Their own lives are short and compromised by lack of money, so much compounded by poor education and corrupt politicians who contrive to make this once well developed country into a basket case in Africa. 

But of course, I am here for the human warmth that flourishes despite all the deprivations. We in the West may have the material wealth, but we no longer can claim to have the emotional generosity that eastern Uganda – and so much more of Africa that I know – can give me. The wealth of the world is so poorly distributed, Africa always suffering at the bottom of the heap, exploited for its resources, improperly rewarded for its efforts; fragile politics meddled with by the big players: China, USA, Russia; an unsophisticated, easily manipulated market for uncaring multinationals. 

But where else am I greeted with such excitement by a million children? Where do I enjoy the curiosity of so many amongst whom I travel? Where do people force me to eat food I know would be their own supper? Where do people with next to nothing give me what they have?

Precious makes me passion fruit juice for breakfast.

As I write, Precious breaks into peals of laughter as I catch her trying to secrete a second chapati in my breakfast ‘rolex’ – a fried chapati with a fried egg rolled inside. She is incorrigible. With a vast appetite herself, she tries to impose one on me! Generous to a fault, she may be, but in African terms I eat the quantity of little Jonathan, ‘Beans’, ‘JB’ – who is two and a quarter years old.

It’s salutary to remember that this isn’t how the other half lives: it’s how the other nine tenths live…

*

The frustrations of life in Africa – Uganda especially – are sometimes almost overwhelming, compounded by my subsequent guilt at feeling angry and irritable when Ugandans suffer this daily. I’m here expecting things to be done as they are in Europe and exasperated that people don’t question why they do things the way they do, when they’ve never known anything different as I have. 

For arcane bureaucratic reasons I can’t extend my East Africa visa that gives me access to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. And all visa business for Kenya must now be done online. Try that in rural Uganda. There’s no internet connection in Sipi except at an expensive hotel. By good fortune, Alex’s cousin Barbara works there. Alex’s junior brother Nic walks with me the fifteen minutes to the hotel. “It’s not working,” says Barbara. Because no one’s paid the bill. Kindly, Barbara says she’ll go and buy ‘data bundles’ for her phone; Nic is of an age to believe that we can connect my iPad that way. Barbara walks off to the village centre; Nic and I gaze at the view of northern Uganda spread dramatically below us. Twenty minutes pass. Barbara brings her phone and Nic fiddles and clicks at the screen. At last we get a connection, but it’s not strong enough to load the enormous Kenya Immigration website. Nic battles the technology: I fume – for forty more minutes, before I suggest we give up and I must ride to Kapchorwa, ten miles up the part-finished road, to find connections. We walk home, I change and ride away. Alex joins me and we ride to the hotel where he used to work in Kapchorwa. It has internet. But that doesn’t work well enough either; I spend another half hour waiting for connections. We decide to go to the main post office: it has an internet cafe. 

Still my iPad won’t connect. About four hours have gone now. Another one and a half to go… I have to use one of the old computers at a station in the back of the post office. I haven’t used an old Microsoft machine, keyboard and mouse in years. I keep hitting the wrong keys, doing things wrong, getting angry. Well, it’s a long story of irritation and complex bureaucratic demands that make no sense. I fill in the ten page form. I tick the box: ‘staying with friends’, give the address and details. Six pages later the website demands a copy of my hotel booking… Just one instance of how going ‘online’ makes it all so easy! I even have to give the names of my father and mother – dead 25 and 10 years. I need a passport photo, a picture of the outside and inside of my passport, details of my incoming and outgoing tickets – I’ve already filled in the portion about entering by road, by Suam border… I goes on and on. Thank goodness Mark is here at the post office. He’s in charge of the internet section and very charming. Without him I couldn’t have coped. Finally, after hours of purgatorial illogicality he prints out a copy of the form I have filled in and a receipt for the £35 I have paid. The copy is in B&W; the website demands that I bring a colour print to the border. There’s no colour printer in Kapchorwa, I’d have to go to Mbale, another 30 miles away in the wrong direction. 

And still, until I get to the Kenyan border on Wednesday or Thursday, I have NO IDEA if it’s worked. I am determined to go back through Suam now: they know me, and Juma, the immigration officer, has been friendly and helpful. If anyone will help extend my visa, Juma will.

By now all pleasure has left the day. I am seething with impatience and frustration. Yet maybe I have achieved something? Or Mark at the post office has. I give him probably a day and a half’s salary (£4) in gratitude. But I am ashamed of the petty tantrums I have displayed. I come here with my European sensibilities and complain that poverty-stricken Uganda frustrates my needs and makes me angry. It’s just the way it is in this unequal world. 

*

Child safety takes on different attitudes here. A twelve foot deep hole for the new latrine is totally unfenced; Keilah, aged three and a half, wanders about with the carving knife; children play on the muddy track and grassy verges of the lane that passes Rock Gardens – despite the dangerously ridden boda-bodas who have little regard for anyone. The small children dance by the open fire at night, play with burning sticks, are constantly smothered in mud, bare footed and eat with muddy fingers. They sit, four and five up, on boda-bodas ridden by untrained idiots; are blathered in filth; play on unsafe heaps of rock; are barefooted all day on mud, the occasional nail, razor blade and vicious thorns. They do, though, grow up understanding risk…

No child has toys. They make their own playthings from debris and rubbish. Lorries from oil containers, the wheels from their tops or cut from discarded sandal soles. They play with sticks and mud, sand and stones, old plastic bags and tins, bald motorbike tyres as hoops. While we worked, they took brushes and old election posters for their own paintings, mainly of material wealth: cars, TVs and helicopters. 

In this enormously over-populated nation, with an average of seven children to every woman – and god knows how many to the men – they never have any lack of playmates. 

*

How do I convince Precious that my appetite is about one tenth what she demands? Presenting me with a serving dish quantity of fish stew, sufficient for three people, four potatoes, a large bowl of rice, a lump of matoke enough for three, and greens for three meals, if anything makes my appetite reduce. I eat more than I wish and she’s then upset with me for ‘eating nothing’… In her culture, from western Uganda, it’s an insult. “Hah! A woman can dive-vorce her husband for not eating her food! I am aaangry!”

*

Alex paints the bar door. I always wonder why bar staff in Africa are expected to duck? Alex can’t explain… “It’s the way we always do it…”

We worked eight long days decorating the 1818 coffee shop and restaurant, as it’s now called. I’m proud of the colours we made: several different bright brown colours from local earth and PVA and black from charcoal and PVA. We bought one litre of commercial white emulsion paint for £1.65 (!). We have painted the whole interior for less than £9.50! Alex reckons that had we bought the lurid commercial paints, we’d have paid £50 at least – for Alex a vast amount. His salary for 30 days on-call as manager at the hotel was £60… Now he knows how to mix these cheap pigments, I foresee an outbreak of coloured buildings in his compound, and maybe an increase in sales of what everyone thinks is mere wood glue at the rather basic Sipi building supplies shop. “We just lack knowledge…” complains Alex.

Alex paints on the outside of 1818
International sign writer at work inside.
‘Traditional’ painting rendered by an international designer!
At the end of 1818, I painted the view I love so much of Kabelyo.

Many visitors come. Word goes round the village that the ‘mzee mzungu’ is painting in traditional local style. It’s a wonder. Well, of course the tradition has been reinvented by this scenery designer’s imagination. I am thanked fulsomely for my efforts by all the visitors.

Here I drew Precious bringing water to the house. JB and Keilah love this picture where they follow their mother!
1818 on an unlikely busy day! “Oh, it’s Christmas!” exclaims Alex, delighted. Let’s hope…
Sipi Falls reinvented in mud and PVA

Above the windows I have painted a frieze of local activities: boda-bodas, bicycles, women carrying babies, local houses, matoke trees and eucalyptus, men drinking komek, the local brew, cows, and children playing. On the end wall I have sign-written (not too badly) ‘Welcome to 1818 coffee shop and restaurant’, and above that painted the view from the road to Suam, with northern Uganda and its volcanic pimples spreading into the far distance: a day spent standing on a plastic table and stools, using paint from dirt and glue. 

*

Nic gazes at the first descent.

The last day of the month was a day off, Sunday. Alex and Nic took me on another lengthy hike – I guess about 15 miles or more. The trouble with living on mountains, as in Sipi and Kessup, is that every metre you go down, you must eventually struggle up again. So fifteen miles seems like many more, especially when the altitude differences are 1500 feet or more. We descended direct from Sipi’s single street, with its shacks and lock up shops. Here the village perches on a ridge, falling away 100 yards on either side. Our path wriggled through big rocks down the steep mountainside into one of the large valleys beneath the escarpment. Away to the north and west, yet lower, stretches a huge vista of northern Uganda, an endless plain reaching to hazy distance. I’ve ridden over big areas of it in previous years, sweating in its inferno. Up here the heat is tempered by our near 2000 metre altitude, but the sun is fierce and walking shaded only by matoke trees and a few remaining deciduous survivors of the depredations of a poor community and their short term economy. It’s distressing to see how most large trees, that took a hundred years to grow, have been relentlessly harvested for charcoal. The few that remain are shapeless from the culling of so many branches, now stunted and distorted. Few new trees are planted, and those too are cut for their weak timber. Only the African weed, eucalyptus, that drains the soil of water and nutrients in its speedy growth, provide shade and soil retention here. People need money – to provide for their huge families of multitudinous children. They need money NOW. There’s no education of environmental damage. No explanation of how they mortgage the futures of their numerous offspring by this short-term need. But who’s to explain? The government itself relies on short-termism. It’s endlessly taking staggering debts from China, selling its future resources and land to a nation that cares nothing for African livelihood or the planet. It wants ever more resources, to plunder the planet for financial gain, with no regard for anything else. THIS is probably the largest challenge and problem facing this continent: its selling of its independence to Chinese overlords. In a couple of decades those canny players will begin to call in their debts. Africa will have nothing with which to pay, except its land and natural resources. It’s a long game, cleverly manipulated and of frightening consequences. Abandon all hope of environmental change now China is the main secretive force in much of the world. 

A small instance is plastic torches. Petty but illustrative. When I was here in January, on our very long hike we ended up staggering up the escarpment in the dark. I have poor night vision and wouldn’t have made it but for the fact that Nic wore pale trousers and somewhere at the bottom of the climb, Alex sent a relative to purchase me a torch. It cost 20 pence from a local rural kiosk. It came complete with three of those small silver button batteries and worked brilliantly – literally. It had an LED bulb and lasted for weeks. Being European, I eventually bought three new button batteries for it: they cost £1… A new torch would have been 20 pence. These people need light. Chinese factories have identified the profit from cheap production and huge sales. As I walked today, everywhere I saw the glow of discarded florescent plastic torches, the plastic and the poisons from their batteries ploughed into the soils on which Ugandans depend for life. All the rest of the short lived plastic products from China ends in the same waste system: the soil and water courses. Sorry, but the future is grim, however assiduously you, reader, recycle your bottles…

In my years of travel on this continent I have constantly seen signboards: ‘Furnished by the people of USA’, ‘Supported by funds of the European Union’, ‘Charity of the United Kingdom’, ‘Aided by the Republic of France’ etc. I see Oxfam, World Vision (USA), Save the Children, Water Aid; charities big and small; often schools named for individual sponsors.

I have yet to see evidence of a single a Chinese charitable body…

*

The sun burns fiercely down. It’s about 30 degrees today. Hot for walking. We are one degree north of the Equator. We walk on our own shadows. Countless people we pass make personal allusions – in their own tongue, but Alex laughs and responds with equal quips. They are commenting on why a mzungu should be walking so far, in the sun, where no mzungu has been seen before. They make personal observations about my age, my hair, my white beard – whatever takes their interest. They don’t see it as rude; it’s merely factual (as they see it) and open curiosity. Alex laughs at many more jokes than he translates! 

We pass a couple of remote villages. Education is low here. There are far more ‘churches’ than schools. It’s Sunday. We hear ranting self-emboldened ‘pastors’ in a dozen mud and zinc ‘churches’. Precious attends one; Alex is cynical. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I get along so well with this intelligent young man: he questions accepted norms in his society. Not many do in emasculated Uganda. He knows about the corruption, desperate pollution, the way ‘Big Men’ manipulate the ignorant – how the ‘pastors’ are in it for the money. Precious is much less worldly aware. She’s simply educated and listens to the nonsense these ‘pastors’ spout. She’s told us some of it, accepting it as truths – that Alex and I refute. Much of it’s not even morally justifiable, yet these self-proclaimed sermonisers have wide influence in these poorly educated, rural communities. Precious and her children sometimes spend the whole of Sunday at a mud and zinc ‘church’ on a nearby hill. There are constant calls for donations – and no accountability whatsoever. As we walk, we hear drumming and singing and ranting. The singing is that high pitched, strident wonder that is so African in nature. A drum keeps the beat. 

There’s a sense of space in Africa that is seldom found in England. Later, we’ll have to reascend that escarpment…

Branching downhill through newly ploughed fields and stumps of mature trees, we visit one of Alex and Nic’s aunts. In families of this scope there are always relations everywhere. She makes us tea as we sit gratefully in the shade of her matoke bananas. A young calf comes to have its chin rubbed by the sentimental mzungu. Mama Tarito (Precious is frequently called Mama Keilah, after her firstborn) obviously likes animals: the calf, a young cat, a couple of dogs, many chickens and a couple of ducks all coexist comfortably on her earthy ledge and in and out of her mud houses. It’s peaceful and bucolic, the breeze rustling the matoke leaves as Alex exchanges news with his aunt. The tea restores me. I needed it. We’ve walked many miles and still have that enormous escarpment looming above. Mama Tarito is thrilled to have a mzungu guest and after an hour she leads us back up the fields and gives Alex directions to a steep path that will climb back out of the lowlands. 

Nic is walking in his socks by now. His shoes give him discomfort and his feet are as hard as most Africans’. We puff and struggle upwards. We’ll be climbing for the next hour and a half, always another hill above us; comments called from every homestead, children running excitedly to view the rare mzungu. I really do travel as a ‘slebrity’ here. Young boys race down one hill on homemade go carts of matoke wood, shouting with glee. The hills rise relentlessly, but there’s a breeze as the afternoon progresses, and the views – when we get out of the endless waving matoke – are pretty spectacular, back over half Uganda below. 

Alex with local children, of whom there’s never a shortage.

On the last – apparently endless – hill, we are followed by a growing band of small children. It’s good to have Alex, now a keen photographer, along with his phone camera. If I pull mine out of the bag, it causes chaos, but they accept Alex and his phone easily and he gets some funny pictures of the numerous children excitedly touching my hair and white skin. “They say your hair is hard and spiky. Like a pig’s!” laughs Alex as he translates. 

It’s after five when we get home, seven hours after we set out. I am light-headed from fatigue and lack of food and liquid. We found a couple of village spring-water supplies en route and I drank some sort of ‘herbal tonic’ (said on the bottle – plastic – to clean the fallopian tubes, amongst other claims) but we haven’t eaten. I’m quite wobbly. 

*

We sit companionably by the fire later in the evening. It’s full moon about now and the nights are bright. Mild tonight, we sit and chat. It’s difficult to describe how fully accepted I am, as a family member. Only little JB is wary, although in the dark he accepts me better. He gets excited looking at photos on my screen, even forgetting his fear enough to lean on my knee. Daylight is different: he still remains apart, although it’s improved in the week I’ve been here. The wails of fear are reduced. 

“How will I send Keilah to look after you?” asks Precious. “To cook for you and keep your house clean.” Women’s work of course,  but Precious means it kindly. She’s concerned about me going back to England. “Stay here!” she demands, not understanding the bureaucracy of Africa. “Stay with us! We will look after you! Don’ go to England and be alone. No one to come in your house! Haah!” Alex chuckles at her naiveté. He has a concept of just what’s involved: the visas, virus tests, flights. But they’re generous thoughts from this warm-hearted young woman. I hesitate to explain the lack of generosity with which the bureaucrats of my own country would receive Keilah. Yet I have complained so long about the officialdom of these countries, who didn’t even invent this appalling bureaucracy. We did, because we didn’t trust black men…

It’s late – all of nine o’clock. The weariness of the long walk is getting to Alex now. Nic says goodnight and goodbye: he’s off to Kampala in the morning, back to his high school. It’s actually opening. As for me, I am reduced to extreme exhaustion, keeping polite with effort. It’s time to retire to my round house, ‘Jonathan’s House’. We’ll sleep well tonight. 

Nic was home two days later, his school still closed.

*

One morning the milkman brings a story from a distant village. He comes with fresh milk in a twenty litre container and dispenses it for sale. It’s fresh from cows in his area. He explains his lateness this morning: his community has been searching the forests for a man who stole a four month old baby last night. Old beliefs persist in uneducated rural areas (sometimes just as powerful in the big cities too) that making sacrifice, even in modern Africa, will bring good fortune to your project. Or it may be for cult worship or black magic. Witch doctors still exist, although little is said of such things. Precious exclaims over and over at the tabloid horror of this abduction, seen by the mother as she cooked, the man chased into the forest. “Can such things happen in your country?” Alex asks. 

“Very occasionally, yes, but it’s a HUGE media circus when it happens. It’s in the news for years! Years!” I think of Soham and the McCanns (the names still in my head, what? 15, 20 years later?)

“Here, the witch doctors, they are still there… A witch doctor who asks for the head for his evil will be RICH! And Big Men, when they build a big building, sometimes they still believe that sacrifice will bring riches. The mother won’t see her baby again.” 

Beneath the surface, some of the evils of old Africa still exist. Even in 2021, with all those fake pastors…

*

The first supper in 1818.

On the fourteenth day I must return to Kenya. My Covid certificate runs out today. It’s the 4th of March, Thursday. A gloriously warm, sunny day. It’s hot riding the roughest of roads, but it’s still my favourite in East Africa.

I leave Sipi amidst the waves and hugs of my family here. Precious waves until I reach the corner of the red track and turn away at last from the home where I am so welcome. I’m really regarded as a family member, a father figure. Precious’s big mattress-like hug says it all and Alex’s sincerity conveys much of what they feel. I know I am their only sponsor – they would have been in great difficulties this last year without my generosity. We all accept that, but I know instinctively that were our positions reversed, they’d be looking after me – just as Precious imagines sending Keilah to look after me in my old age! I’m investing a lot of my money in their future to try to make them independent. I know Alex will honour my commitment. If he can, he will make a success of his small venture, his coffee shop and restaurant. 1818.

*

Uganda has become such a basket case of a country, with its politics and lack of empowerment of its peoples. It’s run by a cartel of crooks with no care for its charming people. This could be such a wonderful country: it has fine scenery and friendly people; it’s full of smiles and welcomes strangers. It’s one of the most cheery places I have visited on this continent that fascinates me so much with its warmth and spirit. But it’s a mess, and the mess is getting worse as people watch the poor examples from above and cohesion and discipline reduce. What a terrible shame. One of my favourite places in the world, reduced to a shambles by its rulers. Returning to Kenya is like a return to order – yet Kenya is hardly a paragon of logicality and rationality itself, but the infrastructure is infinitely more efficient than its wayward neighbour.

*

The Chinese road builders are advancing quite fast, at least as an earth road, from Kapchorwa to Suam border. There are huge amounts of earth to move and diggers work at the big red embankments, villagers in large, idle bands watching the redistribution of their old vistas. For some reason, roads here are built on the scale of motorways. Why, when there’s so little traffic? Now they are facing the biggest challenge, the parts of the topography where the road will have to be carved along the steep mountainside.

A semi-derelict lorry struggles the road between Suam and Kapchorwa.

Well, I buck and ride the rough road towards the east. It’s sunny and hot. I’m more tired by the ride than usual today. I’m not riding very well, maybe because my attention is so much distracted by the expansive views on such a glorious day. I always sense when my riding ability is compromised like this; then it takes a bit of self control to slow down and concentrate better. But it’s difficult to ignore the spectacular views on a day like this when I reach the part of the track that is carved from the hillsides. I stop to take yet another photo. A boda-boda stops nearby, obstructing my picture, inquisitive what the mzungu is doing in the middle of nowhere. Actually, this part is just about the only ‘middle of nowhere’ en route from Kapchorwa to Suam. The inclines are too steep for much agriculture so there’re only a few scattered grass-roofed round huts and some matoke trees. Their shambas are tedious climbs up or down the slopes, but people colonise wherever they can: they have to in this vastly populated country. The grass roofs make the scenery even more fine for a touring mzungu. I ask the boda-boda rider what the area is called. I told Alex I’d find out as this is the view I painted for him on the end wall of 1818 this week. The boda rider doesn’t speak English, but he comprehends my question. It’s Kabelyo, he says. I must remember to tell Alex. I text him the name. He replies, ‘Yes, meaning place of elephants. Nice name with meaning.’ It’s a long time since elephants coexisted with all these numerous Ugandans. The track seems busy today, for no apparent reason. There are scattered boda-bodas weighed down by multiple passengers and huge sacks of produce, wide bundles of sticks or planks of wood, a settee – out here in the sticks… Perhaps the end of the dry season, which will come soon, although it appears to be late this year, is causing the extra traffic? Harvest to be carried on the small Chinese motorbikes and a few lumbering small trucks, loaded high with people and sacks, bouncing and creeping the roughness if the trail. 

*

Maybe I should have stopped for tea? But I am anxious about my visa still. For some illogical reason it keeps me riding towards Suam, where I’ll find out if all the frustrations of the ghastly online application have borne any fruit at all. I ride on again. 

Rural Uganda round Mount Elgon, paradise or poverty?

Then comes the steep winding white hill down to Bukwo with its appalling town road, the worst section of this hard track. I stop and drink some of Precious’s passion fruit juice from my water bottle and gaze at the view towards Kenya and Mount Elgon, beneath a slate grey cloud – impressive. I won’t be coming back to Uganda this year, whatever the visa result. I’d need another Uganda visa, another Kenya visa and a Covid test. I don’t have the patience or resolve to go through all that! I hope I can come back in a year or so. I feel such closeness to my small family here, struggling to be independent. Funny how these contacts are made by chance and maintained by instinct. Gazing over scruffy Bukwo, I reflect that if I hadn’t come this way in 2017 and sought a place to sleep off my exhaustion from the wonderful/ diabolical track round the mountain, I’d have missed out on the friendship and love of my Ugandan family. I looked at various guest houses in Sipi and dismissed them all for one reason or another; then I spotted a sign to a more remote one, a kilometre and a half from the road on grass-lined paths, and there I pulled in to a rough place and was welcomed by Precious, terrified by my appearance, red with dust and deeply weary. The view was fine, the room basic but prepared with unusual sensitivity: the fabrics were cheap but creative, the decoration the best that could be managed on a pathetically small budget. Instinct attracted me to Precious. Local bush telegraph quickly told Alex a stranger was at his house and he came. Instantly, I accepted his integrity and charm. I stayed. I returned later in that trip. We kept in contact. I gained family in Uganda. 

Perhaps if I’d been able to stay another week, little JB would have accepted me? He’d stopped wailing and running away by the time I left, waving me away with a smile from a discrete distance. Keilah had started smiling, expressions that lit up her small face and make her pretty and appealing. Little JB had started to come closer and even let me wash his head after Precious shaved it with my beard trimmer. He loved to look at photos, particularly of himself, on my iPad, screeching in childish delight. It was looking at photos that made Keilah bond with me a couple of years ago: the magic of having a camera that displays the picture just taken. A big step forward in my travels, for I can turn the apparatus about and show them their smiles; children love that. It makes me many small friends. 

*

I make no excuse for multiple photos of this view! The feeling of Being There is immense at this moment.

I bounce down through the last outpost of Suam, people staring as I pass. It’s not a road, just a wide rutted area lined with shacks and lurid shops painted in the livery of the mobile phone companies. What will happen when the road – one day – reaches this back of beyond? Then the fine one-stop border post that’s planned, an artist’s impression of which Juma showed me on his phone? Now it’s still just the dust and dirty shack buildings of the smallest border I know in Africa; me the eighth non-local vehicle registered as passing in over six weeks. 

Harison, the Medical officer on the Uganda station, greets me like and old friend, writes down my Covid certificate details and stamps it with yesterday’s date. He hasn’t changed the stamp as no one’s passed since yesterday at this international border. He stamps it again. A local drunk tells me he’s in charge of the post and ‘guides’ me to customs. Another useless form that no one will ever read is stamped; then my passport. So far so good. I am out of Uganda.

Down over the crippled bridge, most of the railings gone into the trickle of river below where twenty small naked children frolic and shout at the rare mzungu, mere ruts for the track, and up to the twisted gate that defines Kenya’s border. Now what? 

*

All the effort and frustration of my new visa application comes to nought. Helpful, sympathetic Juma isn’t on duty… The only step forward is that Rogers, the officer taking my details, staples the receipt to the printed form I spent 45 minutes getting printed in colour in Kapchorwa this morning. I’m no further forward. His boss dismisses me: “We cannot process this here. We are in the bush! You must go to Eldoret, or go to a cyber cafe in Kitale and print out the new visa.” 

There’s no evidence of a new visa to print out… When I get home and check, the complex website tells me my ‘status’ is still ‘not read’. I still have no visa. “Well,”says Rico, “now you know why I have been trying for 12 years to regularise my ‘status’!”  Just as well my previous visa – the one that’s non-extendable – is still valid. Without that, I guess I’d be waiting at Suam for days. Rogers stamps my old visa. “Go to Eldoret. There it will be simple!” Yeah… I bet.

*

The road home is still thick with dust. In a year or two it’ll be a tar road to the one-stop border. Now the Chinese machines plough and dig, dust everywhere. It’s horrible, but a shower and beers await at journey’s end in Kitale. A real shower, not the bowl of cold water on the floor that I’ve used for the past 11 days.

Kitale town centre is in chaos too. Another new road, and some day perhaps the Chinese railway, is being constructed right through town. An area 150 yards wide, mainly shacks and informal commercial sprawl, has been demolished and cleared. Now a tractor with a trailer of sugar cane – like the one that brought down the power line across the road to Rico and Adelight’s house and caused another two day outage – has broken down in the narrowest part of the earth diversion. The ill-disciplined tailback is long, so I take off onto the red earth at the side and dodge down a bumpy dust alternative, for I know the town well now. Soon I am at home, filthy, exhausted and frustrated by the visa business. But my welcome’s warm as always. I just hope we can sort out a short extension here, until after Easter at least. Everyone at home in gloomy, incarcerated England is emailing me: ‘Stay where you are if you can! There’s nothing to return to here!’

*

On Friday, Rico engages his friend, John, at Immigration in Eldoret. He seems to be the one efficient, honest employee of the organisation. Maybe he can help. “They gave you wrong information at Suam,” he says. “You will need to go back.” He sounds organised and I trust him. He’s been helping Rico with his ‘status’ for a year or more, since Rico met him when he was stationed at Suam. We SMS him my application number. He’s on the case. We wait… We do a lot of that in Africa.

*

Stop press news, as I go to upload this story later on Friday afternoon, the 5th of March. John says I must go to Eldoret on Monday, to the regional immigration office, where they will endorse my visa. “What visa?” I might have asked, but he sounds believable. I’ll give him my trust. If they DO allow my request, I shall return after Easter, adding around a further three weeks to my freedom of movement and happy activity in Africa… Monday will tell. Inshallah… 

Little JB, ‘Beans’ couldn’t take the pressure this afternoon.

EPISODE SEVEN. February 5th to 14th. DESERT CORRUGATIONS, LONG ROADS AND YOYO-ING ALTITUDES AND RETURN TO KERIO VALLEY.

Another long episode, I’m afraid. No internet for some days, so settle down at leisure..!

“Mzungu..! Mzungu..!”

Kenya is notorious for the millions of speed humps that litter every highway – and byway. I remember one town in 2002 that boasted 60 bumps along its short mile of main road. They do limit uncontrolled speeding I suppose. My Mosquito, being a predominantly off-road bike, can take them as they come. I just stand up on the foot-pegs as I leap over the concrete bumps. In fact, they are frequently my best way to get ahead of irritating traffic, for I can overtake as four-wheeled vehicles crawl over the obstacles. They do keep drivers vigilant; hit one at speed and it can wreck cars, cause accidents and damage vehicles.

The Mosquito leapt over a small hump near a local police post on a remote tarred road. Out of the corner of my eye, something flew away. Actually, the left hand horn bracket finally gave in and severed – yes, my little bike has two, although even together they make a pathetic squark! Somehow, as it flew off, it short-circuited the entire machine and blew the main 20 amp fuse. I guessed that’s what had happened, but it took two hours to solve the problem. I pushed the bike back into the shade of a verandah of one of the police buildings and started investigating. Bike electrics are a mystery when they work and a complete enigma when they don’t.

Outside the police post, I took off the tank and seat and began to poke about. No one took any notice; in the highlands I’d have been surrounded by questioning people within moments. I’m just judging by my instinct, but it’s intriguing how these disparate – probably tribal – characteristics are so noticeable. I had to ask for help. It was grudgingly given by a policeman, dropping heavy hints that he should be rewarded with ‘lunch’ (for which read money) for phoning a local auto electrician. I gave him a short speech about helping visitors, a comment that annoyed him. When Peter, the electrician, completed the repair, having ridden his boda-boda back to his workshop 5 kilometres away for a car fuse he could adapt, he consulted the policeman – I am sure asking advice what to charge the mzungu – and requested a scandalous amount that he probably doesn’t earn in several days. I gave him over the odds, for to be fair, he had sorted out my problem, but not what the policeman had greedily suggested. I bet Peter had to pay a ‘finders fee’ to the policeman. Sadly, petty corruption is endemic in Kenyan policemen. Proudly, I have never yet paid a bribe in Africa. I respond with as good as I get, and irritate them cheerfully. Since no policeman knows quite who I am, or might know, they seldom persist. If they do, I have been known to wait them out, demanding to be taken to the station or their superior! 

For a few days I have been in a different tribal region to the people of the highlands, with whom I relate so comfortably. Many of the people amongst whom I spend the most time up there are of the Kalenjin tribe – outgoing, generous and welcoming. The past days have been spent amongst mainly Kikuyu people: sharper of feature, thinner faces, lighter skins – less inquisitive and welcoming, less likely to break into smiles – and much more mercenary. A mzungu is frequently seen as a challenge, not a guest. I’ve caused little interest where I have been, except as a source of cash. Almost no one’s waved at the passing mzungu. I’m happy I’m on my way back up to the highlands in a few days.

*

Tea estates are common on the highlands around Mount Kenya, which is hidden by morning cloud.

Geoff, duty manager of the hotel with the view of Mount Kenya, is a Kikuyu, but very charming. An intelligent young man, he trained in Nairobi and is smart and respectful. He’d love to travel. I find this often amongst bright young people – well, men, I suppose… They are accepting of their straightened circumstances but ambitious to find out more and to better their lot in life. Limited by lack of employment opportunities and always strapped for cash, they struggle optimistically, and usually without envy of my freedoms. 

“I dream of seeing other places, but I am fortunate to have this job. I have only one day off and I work 15 hours! So I suppose there’s not much chance to travel! Maybe I could start with Uganda…”

We talk of where I’ve been. I tell him about Ethiopian buna – their spectacularly wonderful coffee. His eyes shine at the stories I tell him, as I stand in the basic garden bar. Small and sharply featured, he sports a nascent beard and moustache, as much as any young African man can grow. I’m jealous of his tidy teeth – his own, unlike my metal implants. Every day I lecture people about cutting their sugar addictions. These people don’t have either the dentists or the king’s ransom to buy titanium teeth!

Geoff listens and drinks in the stories, knowing that his opportunities are so much more restricted by birth in a poor country, than mine with my privileges. I don’t sense jealousy, just acceptance borne of pragmatism. We both accept he may one day get to Uganda, but I know his chances of getting to Europe are negligible – he’s never going to be wealthy enough to be able to be considered for a visa by the xenophobic North, let alone to purchase a fare. Maybe he’ll get to Ethiopia, it’s not far away. I tell him of the fascinating culture and the history of that country, unlike anything in Africa. “There are churches there older than the cathedrals of Europe! Still in use. It’s a very strong culture, historic and intellectual.” Geoff tells me of a church near Karatina, where we are, that has been in use since 1912. “Yes, Geoff, but I am talking about a THOUSAND years! You should try to visit Ethiopia. Go for a buna: it’s worth it! And the best looking young women in all Africa too…” He’s probably paid next to nothing for his 15 hour days though. Ambition and dreams frustrated by circumstances, as usual on this continent. 

*

These very high lands on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya are memorable for the quality of the light.

Riding north around the western flank of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain at 17,057 feet, now just a wash of grey against the slightly more ethereal sky, I stop as I have done several times before at a cafe before I begin the long descent to the northern deserts. It’s the only place I know in the country where I can eat cake and drink a decent latte. Of course, it’s owned by a mzungu. There are a lot of mzungus in the area around Nanyuki. It’s where all the flowers are grown on huge farms under plastic, for export to Europe. There are many big farms owned by white people for several generations. These mzungus are Kenyan by birth and probably by nationality. And here, just north of Nanyuki, they have a ready market for decent coffee and cakes, even for souvenirs and steak dinners. The British Army maintains a training outpost here. “They went away at the beginning of Covid,” says John with whom I fall into conversation, “but now they are coming back.” John, who’s black Kenyan, runs a horse-riding-at-altitude business with his partner, a woman from Devon, it turns out, but he can’t remember where she’s from. This region, with the mountain above us in the haze, is one of Kenya’s popular tourist areas, and quite a lot of mzungus live round here. In an hour, I see more white skins than I have seen since I left Europe. Soon we are joined by the owner, several generations of Kenya in her blood. Her family owns a huge game park. Three young Britons come with her, relatives of some sort. I ask them what they are doing. They’re the first tourists I’ve seen in two months. 

“Oh, we’re Covid refugees! We got out. We’re still working too!” The wonders if the internet. They are hoping to rent motorbikes for a trip in the deserts down below us. They want advice. “No, we came out of Heathrow well after Britain locked down,” they say, when I explain that I travelled before Christmas. “The government say they banned travel, but I came out in January and no one even asked why I was going, or where. The airports are too lucrative to stop travel, the government knows that,” says one of the young men. I tell them that on the day I flew, when it was still perfectly legal, there were only 50 flights out of Terminal 2 in the whole day, and Terminal 1 was closed, this at one of the world’s busiest airports. “Well, you should’ve seen it on January 10th; Heathrow was heaving!” says one of the young Brits. Interesting stories you don’t hear at home… “We’ll just stay till we can go back. Could be a year for all I care!” 

*

The coffee and cake and conversation is like being at home. Very odd, in the hot sunshine on the slopes of Mount Kenya. I’m remembered by the young women who run the coffee house. I was here two years ago on the way to and from Ethiopia, a country now closed, not by coronavirus but by serious ethnic unrest. Seems I was lucky to choose 2019. I couldn’t go there now; the border up at Moyale has been closed for a long time. Volatile African politics. It’s best to do things when you can on this continent.

*

The endless deserts stretch to the north, viewed from the last of the mountains.

Taking my leave, I ride on down the sweeping hills towards the enormous vistas of endless desert. Up above here, it’s fertile and I love the washed-out colours of the soil. I stop several times to take photos. Africa presents so many apparently limitless landscapes. Vast skies arching overhead dusted with clouds of many densities, and the endless views that fade to an uncertain horizon. Mountains rise from the misty spectacle, panoramas that just go on and on as far as the eye can see. It’s magical, this view of the entire north of this huge country, from here amongst the last pine trees and green fertility. I crossed the desert below two years ago. It took endless patience to ride the 500 broiling kilometres, nothing to see but sand, rock, sky and camels grazing on nothing; the horizon bent with the Earth’s curvature. Burned rocks, black and purple, sitting on red sand; a few hopeless habitations on the way: places where the daily grind is fetching water from wells, sometimes several kilometres away. Water to sustain short, arid, desperately hard lives. It was a wonder to me. What is it like to be condemned to this landscape as home? The more I pondered the hot, relentless desert, the more I decided that maybe my plan of riding to Marsabit, half way to Ethiopia, is unwise! Burning up for 250 kilometres one way, just to burn up again coming back. Why? Because it is there. A rotten reason to bake to a crisp for 300 miles once again. Last time, I had to do it to reach the Ethiopian border… No, I decide, this time instead I’ll turn west again and cross the desert back to the highlands. That’ll be cooking enough.

*

On the way, though, down in the desert, I visit Rebecca, a remarkable Kenyan I have known slightly for twenty years. On the borrowed motorbike that year – 2001, the year before I brought my own African Elephant from Cape Town to the far north of Kenya – I met Rico and his sister, brother in law and cousins at Archers Post, a godforsaken outpost in the Samburu desert. They were on holiday with Rico, a time that coincided with my visit. 

Rebecca is one of those women Africa needs so desperately. Disgusted by the way the men treated their (frequently much more driven) womenfolk, Rebecca started a women’s cooperative that went from strength to strength and is now an important local attribute and attracts the attention of the outside world. Rebecca is asked to speak at world conferences about the empowerment of women. She’s also very much respected by the women of this region, although the men hold her in some suspicion, resenting her position of power. Withdrawal of sexual favours was just one of the weapons that was brought to play to force the men of Archers Post into line! The women formed their own tourist village, guest house, built their own highly regarded school and forced a level of equality on the men that is astonishingly unusual in Africa. They sponsor destitute children, support families and raise education for girls, running their business as a cooperative. 

I arrive, sweating now I am in the low desert country where elephants and crocodiles roam according to the roadsigns – but I am more likely to see cows and goats. I impress myself by recollecting Rose, the cheery receptionist’s name. I am warmly welcomed back, but Rebecca has broken her leg – twice in two months. She’s a heavy woman and now sits in thick plaster, a treatment for which she had to pull in favours from one of her high official women friends in government – as the doctors were all on strike in Kenya a couple of months ago. Rebecca’s some sort of relation to Rico’s late first wife Anna, a Turkana woman from the deep deserts to the north of here. I bring greetings from my brother in Kitale while Rose sorts me a banda – a thatched round house facing the river that is now a series of muddy brown puddles. It does have crocodiles though, although none are visible here, not a place to wander at night! In the rainy season this drying trickle that disappears into the Somali desert somewhere, runs wide and fast. Not now. 

*

There’s been some trepidation in my mind about returning to Rebecca’s women’s guest house. Last time I was here was employed one Jessica. I misjudged her reaction when I gave her a gift of £7 on leaving. She’d been friendly and I was sorry for her as she was hundreds of miles from her son and daughter, working here through some contact she had made, to earn money to send home. Unwisely, I gave her my phone number as I left. Jessica obviously thought that £7 was tantamount to a proposal of marriage! I received no less than 18 text messages and missed calls over the next days, addressed to ‘my love’ and ‘my dear’! I even had a Valentine! It’s still a big joke with William and Adelight. Thank god, Jessica doesn’t seem to be here now… 

Many women in Africa clutch at the straw of finding a mzungu. They know that we do not abandon children, as so many men here will do, leaving the women with sole responsibility for their upkeep and livelihood. There’s a desperate dream to find a mzungu husband that defies logic. What possible deal would it be for the mzungu? To take on Jessica’s two unseen children? To marry someone with whom one has no intellectual or emotional connection? Maybe, of course, that is pretty much the business deal they already suffer with the men they marry – or who father their children, for whom they accept no responsibility? 

The ‘proposals’ I receive are many and various, like the woman outside the Kitale supermarket who ran into the street calling that she ‘needed’ to marry me and had ‘her own business’. A businesswoman, she had her fruit stall on the supermarket steps under an umbrella.

*

The desert road from Archers Post. Corrugations to shake me to pieces.

Why do I do these things: ride 100 miles across the remote northern deserts on the worst track imaginable? It’s a rhetorical question of course. I do it because it frightens me! And I do it for the elation that I feel getting to the other side, beating my anxiety, five astonishingly bumpy hours later. I’m anxious about these journeys; I’m on my own, many miles from help, the world’s worst mechanic. 

And of course, I do it in the vain search for eternal youth too! I must challenge myself. I can’t help it… 

At the other side, I feel buoyed up that I CAN do it, and did do it! My, it was hard work and the roughest trail I’ve suffered for a long time. My Mosquito and I make a good team. Perhaps the little blue bike is my second favourite, after my Elephant. We have fun together and I appreciate the lightness and versatility on these rough trails. I can dance about and correct our trajectory, even on soft sand and ruts that may have thrown me off a heavier machine. 

The first half of my ride was corrugated like a washboard, fit to shake the teeth from my head – hours of it. There are two choices: ride like a man possessed and skit over the tops of the corrugations, or ride at 25mph and suffer the vibrations. In my circumstances, I decided wisely to go slow and shake. Not easy to shake the teeth from MY head, of course; they’re screwed into my skull, but I reckon my Polish implantoligist did a good job!

Soft sand, another hazard

These desert tracks are old and well established, but not heavily used. Boda-bodas trade between remote, crude villages and inevitably, sparse matatus strain and bounce their passengers and loads across the desert. It’s dusty and rocky. Spiky acacias and scrubby bushes cover the ground. The track winds between, and later over, dry hills into a mountain range. This isn’t sand-dune desert like most of the Sahara, it’s just dry scrubland that stretches over so much of East Africa. Everywhere, people scratch a living from this arid landscape. Numerous flocks of goats scavenge the last life from the place. How the cows, the ones with the hump of fat on their shoulders, find enough sustenance, I cannot tell. I pass flocks of camels, attended by herdboys in beads and colourful wrapped cloths. Often they are bare-chested, with a couple of crossed strings of beads against their conker-polished skin. Some have spiky ear decorations, many beaded bracelets and anklets. They are the National Geographic image of ‘Africa’. Extended ear lobes, beaded topknots and bright cloths wrapped about their waists above their knees. They carry tall spears and swish herding sticks and look proud and exotic as I pass, sometimes a flash of dazzling teeth in their smiles, colourful, extravagant, endlessly eye catching. A sense for me that I am in a place where time has stood still and culture is paramount, despite the ubiquitous mobile phone clutched in be-ringed and beaded hands. I carefully ride through a herd of fifty camels, gangly youths trotting beneath mothers. The camels look scandalised at my intrusion. I laugh. I ride beneath an imperious camel head; it looks down in disdain; a look of anthropomorphic haughty contempt that camels do so insultingly. I imagine her snort of disgust as the mzungu rides under her chin. I am riding on footprints the size of dinner plates, dust skittering between their ridiculous legs, the babies out of scale, all legs and inelegance, trotting beneath pendulous tails of their mothers. It’s such fun. I am overcoming my fears. I am in the northern deserts of Kenya, less than a degree north of the Equator. I could be locked up in my home, with rain lashing the windows in half-dark. But I’m squinting in the desert sun, riding amongst ridiculous swaying camels. Life’s great if you go out and meet it head on! 

I love the sense of space; the freedom. But it’s remote…

I’ve an especially fond image: I stopped in a scattered village for a mug of chai, causing a stir. Two cheerful local boda-boda riders pulled up at the same rudimentary cafe. One of them was dressed in local tribal costume: beaded bracelets much of the way up his arms, ear decorations and short sarong-like cloth at his waist. Tucked in the folds of his cloth was a traditional club and a long knife; a pink plastic mirror hung on a ribbon from his waist. Clutching his phone, he climbed off his battered but equally decorative Chinese motorbike with a totally bald front tyre and greeted me with a grin and the fraternal link between bikers the world over – even a mzee mzungu and a virile, exotic Samburu warrior with no war to fight. 

*

You have to go far these days to find the tribal, cultural Africa of the picture-books. Big game too. It’s all been subsumed into the polyglot grey culture of consumerism, multinationals, cheap TV and social media. You have to invade the more inaccessible parts of the earth to find the last vestiges of cultural tradition. 

Sadly unlikely, except in the remotest areas. Most are protected behind fences now.

*

It was a disgustingly hot, sweaty night by the sluggish river at Archers Post. Mosquitoes whined, despite the net, as I perspired into the pillow, all the while, through those doubting hours of the night, apprehensive of the ride I was to take to Maralal. Sleep was light, not really coming refreshingly until the before-dawn hours when the night cooled. Oddly, though, the humid heat presaged a day of grateful cloud that ended in pounding desert rain. I didn’t expect THAT. With rain, the tracks turn to mud, slippery, slithering mire. Fortunately, by now I was on the final forty kilometres to Maralal, a place abandoned by the world. 

*

Maralal is in the middle of nowhere. From here I can take two roads out, north or south. Even I know not to challenge myself with the track to the north, 250 kilometres to absolutely nowhere on the shores of Lake Turkana. My map shows a petrol station half way, but nothing else. It’s just sand. Not a place for an ageing mzungu to go alone. Pity, as I am sure the scenery is amazing. When you get to the lake, there’s no way out but another 250 kilometres of empty desert. These are extreme places. So I’ll go south and accept limitations!

Maralal is not a pretty place. Because the new road to the south is being built, to connect the town to the rest of Kenya, every broken-tarred town road seems to end in a large heap of earth. Grey skies and rain showers don’t add any attraction as surfaces turn to clayey ooze and the sunlight morphs to dull gloom. There’s a Wild West, Last Frontier, End of the World feel to the place, half built and half demolished, empty tracts of scabby grass and dust interspersing the crude buildings of the town. It’s a town of 21,000 people, apparently unplanned and unstructured. A hundred rain-stained shacks and basic shops sell the same utilitarian things, sold Africa-over: plastic goods from China, secondhand clothes, tired-looking fruit and vegetables, plastic shoes, soap and ugali flour, and countless mobile phone booths with their glittery accessories and consumerist temptations. Hundreds of boda-boda boys and men wait at every corner, scraping an existence with their broken machines, that few of them own for themselves. It’s difficult to imagine Maralal’s reason for existence, unless it merely developed around the national reserve that brings the more determined tourists? Of whom there are none at present, except me.

I saw a great deal of Maralal, looking for an acceptable place to sleep. That I found at last in a new hotel without a signboard that I passed several times. How do these places survive? I’m the only resident in the guest book, in a lodging place of fifty rooms or more. Still, I’m not complaining as I have a huge room with two giant windows looking over unoccupied muddy scrubland acres in extent, on which a few boys kick a small football. At under £14 I am content. 

As I write, with a Tusker in front of me on the roof of an empty hotel, overlooking this scruffy town at the end of the world, a magnificent eagle hurtles on the wind, swooping back and forth within feet of my beer glass. I’m yawning as if it’s midnight. It’s not even seven yet…

*

It took me about an hour, and that was stretching my interest, to ‘do’ Maralal on Monday. By now much of it had turned to a sea of mud from overnight rain. Heavy clouds glowered on every horizon and what looked unattractive in the dullness of a drizzly afternoon took on a depressing air on a wet morning. A look at the forecast on the intermittent internet, weak signal and frequent power cuts, suggested patience and a day holed up in this not very diverting town. Rain all around and a cool day here at Maralal’s near 6000 foot altitude, up from Archers Post at 2750 down in the desert. Biking in rain and riding on mud is unappealing. And in Maralal I actually had a pleasant room. 

Lowering skies hang heavily overhead, weeping gently. The colour drains from the African scene. I wander a bit aimlessly, unable to find much to interest me. The town is full of churned mud, puddles and earthy drains filled with litter and debris. My shoes pick up red muck; I pull my jacket tight in the morning chill breeze, but then sweat in the humidity that is never far away as the inherent warmth of African air makes the morning uncomfortably muggy. I suppose I am searching for somewhere I can relax in non-muddy, undingy surroundings and watch the world go by – a coffee shop would be ideal! But this is end of the world rural Africa, hardly cosmopolitan. The best I can hope for is a plastic mug of sugary chai and a plastic Chinese patio chair in a grubby shack with customers’ discarded goat bones on the floor. I walk the streets; everyone stares. They discuss me as I pass but return eye contact with a friendly wave and smile. Most of the white folk who come here – and there are none this year – ride through in guided safari vehicles on their way to look at game and adventure into the extensive deserts on the trails that lead to nowhere much, until you reach the shores of Lake Turkana, where there’s not really anywhere else to go. These are tribal lands with colourful people existing in the most inhospitable landscape, transient herders with their goats and ragged, caked-wool sheep and camels. Out there they live in dome-shaped manyattas built from sticks and straw, sometimes covered in any scavenged fabrics they can find – valuable pickings being canvas from old truck covers, woven plastic sacking and black polythene. Up nearer the lake the manyattas are even more simple – just sticks and grasses formed into small spherical homes that dot the desert. I see a few remnants of these cultures here in town: some older women wear their traditional beaded discs around their necks, shoulder-wide bands of colourful beads, with earrings, wrapped in coloured cloths, with shaven heads – topped off with a blue surgical mask hanging form their ears. Not many men in town adhere to any cultural tradition: they’re mostly clothed in Western hand-me-downs in which gender-based fashion gets adapted into a sort of mix and match of practicality and choice. It makes for bizarrely striking garb. 

*

No other animal is quite like the zebra.

Outside town, a half hour walk away, is the Maralal Safari Lodge. It’s in a corner of the National Reserve. I stayed there once – when such places were affordable. Now it’s been taken over by the local authority and is four times my budget, but scruffier and less maintained than when I stayed a memorable night twenty years ago. I remember the hot bath, with water heated by an aromatic log fire outside my cabin, and waking in the morning to watch zebras outside my window.

Nature’s sartorial joke?

The animals are still there around the lodge. £1.50 worth of spiced tea seemed a cheap rent to pay to sit – the only guest – on the verandah and gaze at many zebras, warthogs and antelopes grazing and cavorting a few yards away. Monkeys crept close, their eyes on the sugar packets on my table. Zebras are common here, I saw several yesterday as I rode that rough trail, and a few antelopes too. But game animals are almost all confined and corralled into fenced parks – except in the extreme regions like those to the north of here where they roam undisturbed by encroaching man, farming and an expanding populous. It’s rare that I see game animals unless I am on a public road that traverses a game park or natural reserve. I did see some ancient elephant shit on the road through the mountains yesterday. It was more common twenty years ago. Now all I am likely to see is chugging overloaded boda-bodas, numerous herds of thin cattle and marauding goats. The Chinese boda-boda has infiltrated every remote corner now with their fumes and noise and irritants non-existent two decades ago. 

*

Out in the remotest parts of the desert scrubland through which I rode to Maralal the track sides were carpeted with plastic. In town discarded plastic is like confetti after a wedding. It fills the gutters, dangles in hedges and thorn bushes, gets ploughed into fields, blows the grassless acres of muck between scrappy structures. It fills rivers and streams, ponds and lakes. Despite Kenya’s well-intentioned symbolic and early ban on plastic bags – well before most Western countries – all goods are still wrapped in plastic: every manufactured item from China, every loaf of Kleenex tissue bread, every drug and drink, even many a meal I am served comes under a coating of clingfilm, and all are addicted to soft drinks and fashionable bottled water. Now all this litter is joined by the current scourge of discarded face masks. No one is aware of the disaster of plastic pollution, of plastic poisoning soil for centuries to come, internally strangling their cattle, being imbibed into our bodies – and even now with minute granules being found in unborn foetuses. I ride along in a shower of plastic wrappings, bottles and packaging tossed from bus and car windows. Modern life in Africa.

*

Wikipedia says candidly of Maralal, in a pretty accurate put-down: ‘Accommodation is cheap and lacking any sophistication, but improved roads heading to Maralal from the south should be completed by 2019, at which time tourism opportunities might improve.’ 

It’s now 2021. The ‘improved’ road heading to Maralal from the south is still quite a stretch from town, slowly making its way north. Give it a year or two more and the wonder of 2019 might be witnessed. Tourism opportunities really need a few more attractions, however… It’s a dull town in the middle of nowhere.

*

The attraction of a roaring log fire in a large grate in my bedroom was enough enticement to ride an extra fifty miles more than I would have liked when I left Maralal on Tuesday. It made for a long day: a ride of over two hundred miles, a quarter of it on rough tracks and uncompleted ‘improved’ roads, back and forth over the Equator several times once again. But I love to stay in the old colonial bungalows at the Kaptagat Hotel and knew I would appreciate (as I am certainly doing as I write, beside a roaring log fire with a couple of bottles of Guinness, my bed ten feet away) the luxury of this ironically very basic accommodation, with the famous candlewick bedspreads and antique thick cream woollen blankets. It just makes me smile! At 8000 feet, 20 miles north of the waist of the world, I am content. And probably slightly pissed…

*

Such extremes exist in this part of the world. My ride south from Maralal was one of the most boring landscapes I have endured in Africa; a sort of high altitude tundra of scrubby vegetation and stunted, thorny trees. A heavily overcast sky did nothing to enliven the scene, brushing a grey pall over the endless high plain. ‘Beware of animals crossing’, said hand-painted signs here and there, causing me to watch for at least some antelopes. I know the more exotic game is behind fences now, but beyond numerous zebras and a few domesticated camels there wasn’t so much as a squirrel to be seen. Zebras were stained by the red dust and recent rains, their white stripes dulled, but even so they make a wonderful sight, even to eyes jaundiced by the grey light. If only zebras were as elegant as their cousins, the horse, they would be amongst the most striking animals on earth, but they have a dumpiness and rotundity that reduces the lithe form despite the stripes – every zebra with its individual tightly fitted, graphological coat. 

And later, one of the finest rides. Through the tall dark forests of dense conifers poured across the high mountains above the Rift Valley, a sweeping road climbing into airless heights, where the populous wrap themselves in thick coats and woolly hats. Ten miles away, often less, we can swelter in the depths of the valley; the road climbing to 9000 feet with occasional vistas revealed of hills rolling to the southern horizon or of the vast depths of the Rift misted far below. 

There’s a long-cut I could have taken; a trail that would have cut a hundred miles from my journey It’d have been more interesting, although rough riding for about fifty miles. As is often the way at the lower end of the Kerio Valley, I was warned off. The Pokot tribe is one of the more troublesome in Kenya, untamed and aggressive. Every time I get to their homelands, I am advised to avoid them; there are constant warnings of fighting and killings, ambushes and shootings. Tribal wars of old are replaced by banal cattle rustling. Raised on doubtless stirring tales of intertribal battles and skirmishes, maybe the exotic young men no longer have ways to prove their honour and virility, except by stealing cattle of their tribal neighbours. Recently, 17 young men shot each other to death along the dirt route I would have taken. Reckoning that locals know best, it seemed wise to accept their advice. I went the long way round, on mainly tarred roads. Impressive roads by any standards but ones I know well. 

*

Chilled by the altitude, I stop for chai on the curling way down from the heights. In a short half hour I will be grateful for the warmth of the valley bottom, stripping off my outer jacket that I’ve worn since leaving Maralal, despite the energetic parts of the rocky road. “Have you any snack?” I ask the shy young man who comes to serve me in a garden of a tea house obviously designed for the tourists who just aren’t here. “Any samosas?”

“We have sausage…” 

“OK, two sausages and African tea!”

He comes back a few moments later. “Tea with milk? Or black?” He seems to be persuading me to the black option. 

“No, white, please…”

“Will you wait? We have to milk.”

Most of the milky tea mixture he brings in a chrome teapot with no knob, was in the cow minutes ago, out at the back of the compound. Accompanying it are two faded chipolatas on a saucer. Living it up on a mountainside somewhere on the edge of the Rift Valley. Life’s colourful.

*

I feel as if I have slipped back to the 1950s, in the Kaptagat Hotel with its tin-roofed bungalows and old gardens. It’s charming, perhaps my favourite hotel. Hugged a welcome by the two Ellens, and welcomed by all the staff like an old friend – as their mzungu, since I am the first white tourist since I was here last year – I feel at home. Ellen tells me she is away to visit her mother tomorrow about 40 miles away, so I give her 200 bob. “Buy something for your mother, and it’ll help with the fare!” She’s very touched and deeply grateful for the £1.50, perhaps what she earns in a day’s work. “Oh, I will buy her sugar!” Ellen shows me that she has my ‘contact’ since I was here before, but I have changed my number since then, so we go through the formalities of ‘exchanging contacts’ – now an important African ritual. She hugs me goodnight as she’s off early tomorrow. I sit and eat the greens from her shamba by the log fire. 

Later, lying in bed, beneath the infamous candlewick, the room is lit by firelight. The hearth is almost thirty feet away in the huge room but it’s warm, there’s no wind tonight and it’s silent outside. Really, who could ask for more?

Only a good night’s sleep after a very long ride… 

*

Awash with chai I sit at the garden table beneath tall cedars swaying in the stiff wind. The weather is cool, but I am at 8000 feet. A bright yellow-breasted weaver bird cautiously jumps onto my breakfast plate, pushed across the small table. I remain absolutely still as it pecks at the crumbs of chips. It’s already 10, I slept until nine this morning under the candlewick with the fire glow across the room. Soon I’ll set off. I’m only going as far as Kessup once again, to see William and the village for a couple of nights on the way home to Kitale. This wasn’t quite the trip I had anticipated; I didn’t get to the coast and I rode long, long days in some quite tedious landscapes. But today I know, I will make up for that as I take – yet again – the steep trail down the wall of the Rift. It’ll be warmer too. Time to leave the weaver bird, back on the table, even as I write, and face another day in Africa. 

*

The winding road down the escarpment. My favourite.

The old Kaptagat Hotel is an equal attraction to that steep trail into the Kerio Valley, the one that drops 5184 feet in 12 miles and 18 hairpin bends of rock and dust. I can’t resist returning to Kessup this way, even if it means I must chug and curl my way back up almost another 3000 feet to reach the Kessup plateau. It’s such fun even though I must have taken this trail at least a dozen times, up or down. I love the space and freedom, the great steamed vistas across this vast valley, the bottom hazed and indistinct today. I ride down at not even 25 miles an hour, savouring the views, the freshness of the air – as it warms up with every metre I descend – the joy of being in this giant landscape. The road’s been graded a bit, so it’s not quite so bumpy some of the time, but there are still plenty of obstacles to make for a diverting journey. At last I am on the white sandy track in the depths of the valley, which I must follow several miles to the tar road that sweeps and curves through the valley bottom amongst the finest mangoes and apiaries. It’s hot here, the wind hitting my face as if from a hot fan as I ride. I’ve removed my outer jacket now, that I had donned on the chilly heights as I rode to Nyaru at almost 9000 feet. 

Gloria, Meshak and Joy.

I turn into the tar road. Children are coming from schools. African children, even small ones, walk miles to and from school. Cotton uniforms in their school colours, shorts and skirts and shirts, schoolbags over their shoulders. They wave excitedly and chorus, “Mzungu, Mzungu!” as I pass. I avoid a hundred goats and cows wandering the tar, a small child – not at school – standing with a herding stick watching me pass. 

And so up the winding road that climbs the valley walls, up to Kessup, ‘my’ village after all these visits. A welcome from the young women who run the guest house: my key is ready; a blanket has been put in my room to replace the concrete block heaviness and density of the bed covers. How can anyone sleep under these thick heavy duvets? It’s the best part of 30 degrees here.

*

Later, William joins me. I slipped past his shamba without his noticing, so I’ve had a chance for a brief, quiet rest. But it’s beer time now and supper is being prepared. Tonight, late as usual, with William hopping up and down in irritation that the meal is later than promised – for he likes his punctuality, does William. The cook prepares greens that William bought when he heard I was on my way, rice and mbuzi – goat meat. It’s tender for once. This cook is the best they’ve had here. But it’s a meal for a family, as always. So we call the three girls who work here, Vicky, Gladys and Millicent, to eat with us. They are respectful, disciplined young women, who don’t earn much and often supplement their very basic rations with returns from the few diners. William and I enjoy their company. One thing about William is that he drinks his beers, eats his supper and then leaves, without ceremony! It suits me, for I too can retire to my room and an early night. As I close my door I am aware, rather than see, the enormous valley right in front of me, where I stand on this ledge above the 3000 foot drop into darkness. A dark yawning void right at my feet. The Great Rift Valley of Africa.

*

Gloria Chemuti

“We will walk a long way today!” declares William as I finish my breakfast pancake and omelette at a plastic table in the garden with the view in front of us. A huge raptor circles and cries above us. “We will go where I told you last time. To a village right along the edge of the valley, over there.” He points into the distance to the north. “You see that hill? The long one, and another beside it? We will go to the hill beyond that. If we make it…” he qualifies the prospect in case I’m not up to it. We both enjoy these long rambles. William is a very sociable man and loves to meet his neighbours, and the mzungu in tow adds a certain exoticness to his introductions. I mean, HE has volunteered today’s destination. He could have suggested we walk in the village just below.

Joy Cherop

We set out on what will prove to be about ten kilometres in each direction. We will walk for five hours on the red dirt tracks that wander through everyone’s shambas on the hillsides. We’ll meet dozens of people, exchange pleasantries and explain who I am to those that don’t already recognise me; we’ll be accompanied by calls of, “Mzunguuuu!” from hundreds of children, many of whom are so far away I can’t even see them. I wonder what would happen if I shouted, “Black man! Black man!” at every black-skinned person I met in Devon? Not that there’d BE many, but I’d probably be arrested and accused of prejudice! Here it’s my constant companion: “Mzungu! Mzunguuuu!” And I love it! It’s so endearing from these delightful, excited children. How could I resent it?

*

Evans (an oddly popular name) is planting vegetables by hand, in a shockingly large field. I’d be intimidated by the task, but for Evans it’s normal. He’s probably grateful for the opportunity – and the quarter acre. We fist bump and start a conversation; William is talking to Evan’s friend. We talk, inevitably, about the one subject every African knows about my homeland: the Premier League. Even if you don’t think much of football, this is the ONE thing the world knows about England. It may not be exactly English any more – the players often African in fact or multinational; the owners Russian oligarchs, Saudi billionaires, business investors – but from the point of view of much of the world it’s our greatest export – financially and culturally. Evans is amazed at my (guessed) prices of a ticket to a big game; at the price of land in England; that we have unemployed people and beggars: “Eh, I though unemployment was only in Africa! You have unemployed in Europe?” People here are shockingly unaware that we share many of the same economic and social problems. When you see the fiction they watch on TV you may understand why. It’s all glitz, glamour and consumption. The American Dream – one of the biggest fantasies ever created. 

*

William and I walk on, meeting and greeting. Fortunately, he enjoys this as much as I do. “The goodness with you is, you enjoy the same things.” We’re comfortable company for a day like this, he answers my questions openly, and he’s here for the exercise, conversation and the people we meet, all of whom know him on the first half of today’s journey. He’s respected for his honest and affable manner.

Kerio Valley from near Siroch..

The distant village of Siroch is our destination. It’s about 10 kilometres along the escarpment, I guess; it takes two and a half hours to walk there. The sun’s shining from high above, here at the middle of the planet; the day’s warm but a breeze tempers the heat a bit. It’s gentle walking, quite easy, along the hillocks and dips of the plateau with the 1000 foot of steepness to the rim of the valley above and the 2700 drop always visible to our right as we walk northwards. Half way, we can look up and see the viewpoint on the very edge of the valley that is revealed so dramatically as you drive out of the town of Iten. It’s where I first saw this geological wonder twenty years ago. I never expected then, as I rode down the curls and turns past Kessup, that I’d come to be so familiar with it. 

Kerio Valley

At Siroch we lounge on dry grass beneath a shady tree at the village centre and drink sweet milky tea. William eats mandazi, a universal Kenyan snack, a sort of sweet dough fried in oil. It’s a bit like eating fried Kleenex with sugar, so I just break off a corner. I can feel the energy flooding back with the sugary tea. We’ve walked two and a half hours in the sun, although there’re clouds about today, casting black shadows on the valley floor far below. In the evening they will build to thunder and rain on the highlands above us, but we will be spared all but some light showers on the plateau. It does make for dramatic slate skies though. The sky is always so prominent in Africa. 

We relax and sip the reviving hot tea from brown china mugs. William, always sociable, chatters with some village folk who’ve gathered. He’s not known here, we’re six miles from his community, but there are always relations to be made out; he’s a half sister, by his father’s second wife, married somewhere up on the hill above. I loll back and gaze around, greeting and smiling at people who come to stare at a rare mzungu. There’s a ring of tin shacks, all closed up. One has a crudely painted sign over the rough wooden door: ‘Kinyozi’ – that’s a hair salon. They’re everywhere, women weaving creations from ‘flame-resistant and dandruff free’ fake hair braids from glossy plastic packets made in China. Behind me is a dirty wooden shack with weld-mesh over the front opening and a rickety wooden step beneath the window. It’s a small kiosk, and the step is for the schoolchildren who now begin to appear. They can buy sweets one at a time for a few pennies. 

The schoolchildren are neatly dressed – or they were when they left home in the morning, but children being children, their shirts hang out and their olive green cotton shorts and skirts and woollen jumpers are now dusty and ill-adjusted. There’s a mzungu resting in their village square! It’s incredible, something wonderful! They are so excited. Many are fearful and run back, giggling. Others stand in groups around the rough, scrubby area and just stare at the apparition. A young man, with whom William has found some familial relationship, however distant, and is sitting talking with him, says, “You are the first mzungu they’ve ever seen! That’s why they are frightened. No mzungus ever come here to Siroch!” 

I pull my notebook from my pocket to remember this moment. As I scribble, the children creep closer, whispering amongst themselves, more confident now my attention is diverted. Now they are all about me, peering at the illegible scribbles, looking closely at my white hands and hairy arms, blue eyes and extraordinary difference. Scruffy dusty kids, they are endlessly endearing, as they gather bravely, green shorts and skirts, assorted plastic sandals, dusty knees, now laughing amongst themselves. 

A young teacher joins us and greets me. This is my opportunity to actually talk to the many children in a tight circle around me. The neat teacher translates for them. They believe him: he’s their teacher.

“I am just the same as you!” I say. “Only I have pink skin and you have brown.” I show them my white palms. The teacher translates. The braver ones now touch my hands and stroke the hairs on my arms. “I have blue eyes and you have brown ones, but if you cut my skin, I bleed red blood just like you! I have two legs, two arms, ears… All just the same as you. It’s like there are brown cows and white cows! But we are still all cows!” The children laugh at the concept but they have seen that this strange being laughs with them too.

“Some of these children will not sleep today! They will be dreaming! It will go in the Guinness Book of Records, the day a mzungu came to their village!” laughs William as we walk away down the red hill. A group of children follows us and I tell William about the childhood game from home: ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. Every time I turn round to grin at the children just behind us, they stop in awe and stare. I love these moments. It’s why I come back to Kessup time and again, to be at one with these villagers. 

The winding road home again to Kessup, alongside the huge valley.

Finally, the last children peel off to their homes amongst the greenery and we walk on in peace, the yawning valley now on our left as we walk south again. The views are more impressive this way, for the valley is now prominent, whereas when we walked to Siroch, we were walking with the escarpment in view. Now there’s a change in the light: the valley is full of bright light but up above the dark cliffs on our right heavy clouds are gathering. After we pass the Iten viewpoint, silhouetted on the cliff edge far above, we begin to hear thunder rolling about the highlands. “But it won’t rain here,” says William, who understands the topography of his birthplace. “Maybe just a light shower later.” He’s right. The wind whips up a bit, cooling the air, but it’s close now, oppressive and humid as the sun is blotted out by the slate clouds. But we make it home dry and William goes to attend to his cows. We’ll  meet again at five. I end up with a cold shower from a useless unit that sprays the walls of the small bathroom, not me, and leaks everywhere. I daren’t touch the shower head; they are frequently live with 240 volts, twisted wires bound with insulating tape going straight into the shower head.

William takes his four Tuskers and I mistakenly take my Tusker and Guinness, then add another bottle of Guinness. All before the chicken, greens and chapatis arrive. Thankfully, William heads off home as soon as he’s eaten as usual. I retire to bed, tripping over the carpet, rather out of control. I’ve walked five solid hours on a hot day and am now boozed. But I can sleep for almost twelve hours as it’s only 8.20.

*

On Friday we walk the other way, south. “The goodness is, we like to walk!” It’s very hot again – I explain the meaning of ‘close’, for that’s what it is. There’s been rain up above the escarpment and it’s broiling down here. What it’s like in the huge valley below, I can’t imagine. “We won’t walk so far. We will look for the mead, and then come back at one and relax!” William likes his timekeeping and exact programme. “I was trained by British!” It turns out to be almost exactly one o’clock when we turn into the garden bar on the hill. We’ve been looking for mead for some visits now. I want to try it. This is a productive beekeeping region, especially the hot valley below, and there’s a highly potent local brew made from the honey. It’s fermented with the wood of some tree and is extremely alcoholic. I’ve been warned several times not to take more than a glass or I will be drunk. But we fail again to find it. “Come on Sunday, it will be there,” we are told. But I must be back in Kitale by Saturday evening. “Next time you are coming, we will find it,” says William, “but we must buy your green vegey-tables…” 

We buy fifty bobs’ worth of saga, a small-leafed, rich green vegetable from William’s mother on her farm as we pass. About 80, William reckons, his mother still works her shamba. “She owns all this land,” he says, waving his hand across the hillside. “She’s one of the richest old women in the area. She still works hard and you can see she is still strong. But she will be afraid of you! Some of our old people – they don’t know better – they think all white people are carrying Corona. They believe you invented it, you whites! It’s what the media told us in the beginning to frighten us. It was irresponsible. They don’t know it’s worldwide. But it’s only some old people who believe this. Most younger people here in Kessup, they say, oh, Corona is gone now!” And on our walk I shake hands with dozens. There’s been no virus here. “Eat your greens!” William tells everyone. “There will be no Corona!” It’s a slight corruption of my advice that staying fit and healthy – as most are here, where there are not even overweight people, let alone obesity; no diabetes; no ‘underlying health issues’ (you tend to die first); everyone lives outdoors and there’s plentiful supply of Vitamin D – is the best way to reduce the dangers of the virus. But William’s mother keeps her distance and gives me only a perfunctory greeting this year, although she knows me well enough by now.

*

Once again we sit in a small village centre drinking tea with some locals, and the inevitable elderly woman who wants me to marry her. It’s a big joke. As she leaves I call, “See you at the wedding!” She walks away laughing loudly. The group around us joins in the familiar joke. 

It’s one o’clock again and the primary school across the way, with its many broken windows and stained paint, closes for the day. Small children, about four, five and six, come pouring out shouting and clamouring at their release. Then the mzungu is spotted and pandemonium breaks out – again.  It’s a real-life mzungu! These children aren’t afraid like those in Siroch yesterday. They’ve heard about these strange beings, maybe even seen one or two at a distance. But this one is real and here! They soon see that I am a friendly white giant and I walk along with a Pied Piper crew behind me, as they walk home to their compounds. They are brave enough to come and touch my hands, rub the hairy arms, and one small boy, the last to reach his home, even holds my hand for the last few hundred yards. Oh, what a joy it is to make such delightful little people happy just by being here! Abel has no front teeth and a grubby face, but a smile to light up the darkest day. Kyle has beads of sweat all over his face and the dirtiest nose and some little girls giggle and laugh their way home with us, endlessly cheeky, respectful and enchanting. 

Abel

*

We fall in step with a woman whom William seems to know a little. She’s in her late 30s, I’d judge. She’s a bucket of avocados and a large green sack of vegetables. She’s marketing them sort of door to door, William explains. “Life is hard in Africa,” he says. He wonders why she didn’t go to school, because she’s obviously intelligent and should find better work than this. He quizzes her. It’s the usual story: she got pregnant at a very young age and dropped out of school, now she sells vegetables for a few bob, making enough – perhaps – for her rent and to feed her child. So many schoolgirl pregnancies, blighting lives. So common here. And the fathers long disappeared with no responsibility. Later, as we relax over a beer, a group of youngish men are raucously drunk at 2.00pm. I say to William, “And I bet their wives are at home working on the shambas, washing,  cooking, looking after the children; and look at them…” One is so drunk he’s passed out on the grass nearby. Two of them will get on their boda-bodas and carry children several at a time home from afternoon school, and one has brought his car… They are all drinking wirigi, the locally distilled alcohol, or KK – Kenya Kane spirit, cheaper by far than beer and ten times more alcoholic. I’ve seen it so often: African men drinking to get drunk, leaving their women and families to care for themselves. 

*

So, on Saturday, two weeks and 1500 miles since I set out on my safari, home to Kitale once more, my base in East Africa, where I am always so warmly welcome. I’ve returned in time for us to have a small celebration on Sunday – a barbecue, and I buy two bottles of sweet red wine that Adelight and the girls enjoy as a treat. On Monday, Marion will leave the house and enrol for her studies in hospitality at a college way down at Voi, on the road that frightened me enough to turn back last week. She’s a bright young woman, but needs stimulation. Maybe this will be just what she needs, for all the young people have lost a year to virus restrictions. Marion achieved a government sponsorship. She is quiet but intelligent; she writes well. 

I go to town with Adelight to buy the things we need on Sunday for our party. Suddenly, there’s a violent rainstorm. This is an unsettled period, not really seasonal – but what are seasons now, with Climate Change? Nothing is certain any more, but when the weather alters in this largely subsistence economy, it has more effect on livelihoods and opportunities than it has in the rich countries, which largely wish these changes on this continent by their profligacy. Africa produces the least greenhouse gases of any part of the planet, and suffers disproportionately from their harm. Africans used to know and understand their weather lore. Not any more… 

Kyle – what is HIS future..?

EPISODE SIX. RIFTS AND MOUNTAINS. DISCRETION GETS THE BETTER OF OBSTINACY. January 30 – February 5th

I am on a journey. An adventure of sorts. As I set off, I am apprehensive but just a bit excited too. I love this state. I have been here so many times and for me it is the breath of life – curiosity about what will happen, where I will go, who I will meet. There’s no strict plan, just the idea of riding all the very long way down to the Kenyan coast, down to the Indian Ocean, days away. This year, there’s an added zest: I am the only tourist anyone’s seen, the only escapee from the Infected North (as people here see it).

As I write, the heat of a log fire tingles on my sunburned face. I’m on the road, heading to unknowns. It’s not exactly crossing uncharted territory – just down the African roads to the east – but the future’s hidden to me. It’s the thrill of Unknown Tomorrows to which I have always responded on almost 150 journeys out of my home country. 

*

The Kaptagat Hotel – faded colonial charm

The Kaptagat Hotel, a bit of (very) faded colonial elegance. You can imagine that it was once an exclusively white preserve, the only black skins serving the beer and pink gins. It’s got that sort of feel about it. Each year that I visit it gets just a trifle more dowdy – but I like that. I mean, where did I last sleep beneath a Candlewick bedspread – except here at the old Kaptagat Hotel with its corrugated-roofed bungalows in fine mature gardens, laid out by some colonial gardener sick for home. On which note: I never get homesick, well, I wouldn’t would I? But the single impulse I have found that brings momentary homesickness, or perhaps it’s just a sort of nostalgia, is irises – the flower. And outside my room they bloom in the European climate of Kaptagat. Irises always bring me a sense of childhood summers; a sentimentality for a time – probably imaginary – that I will never recapture; a sensation of age creeping up inexorably. Irises! Huh! 

*

I have repeatedly written that going back in Africa is important. It’s so nice to be recognised and welcomed back, before I have hardly stepped on the paths of the old hotel. Mind you, Ellen, the manager of the few faded rooms, says I am the FIRST foreign tourist to stay here for a WHOLE YEAR. And the previous foreign tourist? ME, a year ago! I am a very rare species just now. 

Ellen brings a pan of charcoal and a bucket of corn husks to start an fragrant log fire in the old brick grate. She waits awhile, with her counterpart, another Ellen, both of whom hug me a welcome, and adds big cedar logs to my blaze. It’s probably the reason I come back here every year. To sleep in a room with a blazing log fire, just a few miles north of the Equator at 8000 feet. It impossible to overstate the luxury, even though, for most, it might seem humble, the place a trifle scruffy.

Later, the Ellens bring my supper. Tonight I’ve ordered a simple meal, just some ugali with green vegetables from Ellen’s own shamba and a couple of hardboiled eggs. I had shamba avocados again for lunch before leaving Kitale, as it’s only two and a half hours riding to get to Kaptagat, on roads I know by now. 

*

Within a few miles of the middle of the planet, up here at 8000 feet, mornings in Kaptagat are cold, much too chilly to ride the motorbike until the sun climbs some way up the dramatically blue sky. But here I am close also to the western rim of the Rift Valley and I know that by lunchtime I will be steaming – in helmet, jacket, gloves, goggles, motocross trousers and boots – at the bottom of the great chasm. It’s impossible to dress for a day like this on the bike. I will be up and down through climatic zones all day long, for I am going to cross the valley and climb far above its eastern rim. It’s one of the eternal fascinations of Kenya where the Rift is so pronounced and visible. 

A garden full of birds and birdsong and the soughing of a stiff breeze, perhaps coming up out of the valley. Tiny birds, little bigger than wrens that are so small they can balance on a blade of grass where the panga has missed it on the lawns and bend it down to pick the seeds. Raptors high above between the tall coniferous trees and bright little yellow weaver birds, their nests hanging from the ends of boughs above my room, settle briefly on my breakfast table under a thatched cover. 

*

For a geographical feature big enough to identify from space – even the moon, I have been told – the Great Rift Valley is remarkably shy about being found here on earth. It’s over five thousand feet deep, and within a mile or so of where I am riding – but can I SEE it? I ride the difficult red rocky trail I have found – a new one to me, who’s been this way many times – thinking I’m bound to see the huge gap in the Earth. But no, it is almost always elusive.

However, when it does reveal itself, it is stunningly dramatic and well worth the previous disappointments. I reach a junction with a tar road that I’m not expecting, promptly follow what seems the logical direction – which I should know, seldom works in this landscape – and ride ten miles the wrong way. Where’s the bloody Rift Valley? Well, of course, I’m at this point going AWAY from it anyway. Eventually light dawns and some fellows at the roadside confirm what I now suspect and watch me turn round, laughing. Working my way through earthy roadworks, for the tar finishes quite soon in the other direction, I sense rather than actually see a stupendous view to my left. I KNEW it was there; now suddenly the Rift is revealed in all its phenomenal wonder. Stopping the Mosquito amongst piles of earth at the side of the roughly formed road I push apart some bushes and almost fall into the Rift! I’m atop an almost vertical escarpment that drops hundreds of feet, and then thousands more. A worthy way to go, maybe, plunging into a geological wonder visible from the moon, but not yet… I’m not ready! The view is colossal. Worth all the angst of that precipitate escape from home; of the insecurity of not knowing how and when I can return; of the rigours of the roads; the dust; the heat; the doubts. THIS is why I travel: for these moments of wonder that well up like a physical knot of emotion in my stomach. This ‘I’m here!’ moment. I gaze and gaze into the hazy abyss, fulfilled. 

It’d be a long drop…
The Rift Valley, visible, they say, from the moon. Pretty good from Earth too.

Tantalising glimpses of the valley open here and there on the remainder of that surprisingly long road as I plough through dusty roadworks and across newly turned earth scored by road machines into a rutted dry mess. Then at last I am back on the main tar road I know, but only for 200 yards, for now I know to turn off onto one of my favourite African roads. (You may note that several roads in the highlands of Kenya and a round Mount Elgon are my favourites! Well, you should see them..!)

In about twelve miles the road that I take from Nyaru, an insignificant hamlet of tin shacks and schools, or the rocky trail, to be more accurate, drops to Kimwarer in a series of about 18 serpentine hairpins. In twelve miles the trail descends 5184 feet! Nyaru is at a chilly, fresh 8990 feet, the valley bottom just here at 3806. This is trail riding to relish. Magnificence unbound. Blue shades of mountain faces stretching into apparent infinity. Always vistas at my feet. The track bumping away into the scenic distance, from coniferous forests down to aloes and cacti. From chill, sharp air to suffocating warmth. In TWELVE miles. OF COURSE it’s one of my favourite trails! Of course I have taken this track every year for the past five years, sometimes up, sometimes down. I never tire of it, tiring though it may be. 

At the bottom I stop for sweet chai. I need it. I’m smiling but weary, my energy low by now. Peter joins me as I sip the scalding sugary horror, but I can feel the strength coming from the surfeit of sweetness. Peter wants to chat. I’d rather just gaze at the bush land around me quietly, but he’s polite and respectful, so I can’t rebuff him. He has ambitions. God, in whom he believes – this is a piece of information commonly shared with strangers – will provide. He has a small shop across the road, but no capital. He wants to manufacture cosmetics, he says. He wants to market them in Uganda too, so he asks how is that country, hearing that I have been there recently. He’s interested in palm oil, an ingredient of many cosmetics – a product of West Africa, not East Africa – when he hears I’ve been there too. He wants to travel to England. He’s certainly adaptable to his conversational partner! Now he wants ‘my number, so we can communicate’, but I tell him, quite convincingly it appears from his expression, that I have trodden on my phone and decided not to buy a new one since I will be leaving Africa shortly. “Why not give me YOUR number?” I suggest, “then when I get a new one, I can be in touch. And I’ll look in at your new shop when I am passing.” I’m not really giving him the cold shoulder, but I know a relationship founded on a mug of hot sweet tea isn’t going anywhere. Easier this way. 

*

Crossing the Great Rift is fascinating. Here it is split into the Kerio Valley, the branch that I overlook from my room at Kessup, and the Rift Valley itself. Kerio Valley spurs off, a similar depth, to the west side of the huge rupture. When I leave Peter, I continue to ride downwards, just another hundred metres or so, then, across the Kerio River that snakes along the bottom of the valley, I begin the ascent to the intervening ridge. At the top sits the scruffy regional town of Kabarnet. I can look back from the curling serpentines of the road and see the far wall of the valley, misted by distance – it must be about ten miles away – down which I bounced an hour back. Now my little Mosquito puffs up to Kabarnet and its busy town traffic, boda-bodas and matatus jostling.

Then it’s off along another old favourite road, through the mess of Tenges, a strip development better unseen, along a narrow ridge of mountain. Sometimes the Kerio Valley and the Great Rift are visible fifty yards away on either side, plunging into green depths behind conifers on the steep slopes. I first came this way some years ago. Then it was a bumpy adventure; now the tarmac, only four years old, is breaking up into diabolical holes. Just as well I am on my versatile Mosquito and can balance and weave through it all, dancing on the foot pegs, back down into the eastern valley now, the Rift Valley proper. From the chill and dense greens of conifers I am soon spinning down through waving eucalyptus and into the cooking valley, with cacti and aloes, avoiding potholes the size of bathtubs and wandering cattle searching for sustenance. Short years ago, this was smooth tarmac, but the climate isn’t sympathetic and maintenance is a word unknown on the African continent. 

*

On Monday, I stay in Eldama Ravine. I’ve often stopped here, but still haven’t found a hotel I like. Once, I stayed in a big hotel at the bottom of town, and it was perhaps the noisiest place I EVER stayed. A disco that continued all night and literally shook the hotel. This time I returned to a place I found last year. I took a room away from the road, overlooking views of distant mountains across a sea of debris, bad construction and garbage. After an hour I returned to reception. “Can you let me into the secret of how I can get a warm shower?” The receptionist came and fiddled, standing on the edge of the bath. She called the ‘electrician’. He stood on the edge of the bath and took the unit to pieces. Finally, they moved me to another room. It was as the electrician stood, fingers exploring live wires, feet in the bath, that I remembered: I stayed in this room a YEAR ago, and the shower didn’t work… That time it was warm enough to have a cold shower. Maintenance? No… in the second room the lavatory leaked a big puddle on the floor and some smart artisan had nailed the towel rail to the back of the door, so the door only opened half way and the tiles had cracked from repeated assault. 

*

Tuesday was a long day. Riding through more climatic zones, I rode down from Eldama and took the short cut I know that avoids the main highway up from Nairobi. It follows an old colonial railway line, through places with redolent names like ‘McCall’s Siding’  and ‘Milton’s Siding’. The railway is long defunct, as are most in East Africa. Now it’s just an occasional steel rail to bounce over in the earth and rock. The trail is being ‘repaired’ and is a dust bath from end to end for twenty miles or so. Then a fine new tarred road I never used before along the floor of the Rift Valley, a place of expansive fruit orchards and a mysteriously copper-coloured lake, Lake Solai, where large flocks of flamingoes brightened the red shoreline and a crowd of seventy or more giant crested cranes pecked at a field like bobbing oil wells. 

As Rico says, the only time you’ll see so many cranes together is on a Chinese building site!

Up the eastern face of the valley to Nyahururu, said to be Kenya’s highest major town at 7750 feet, but a place of little attraction for me, after various visits. It’s enough to stop at the snobby Thomson’s Falls Lodge and drink overpriced chai (“Oh, a pot of tea, Sir?”) and samosas in my faded jacket and dusty clothing, and look at the nearby falls without doing battle with the tourist stands. Another slog across the top of Kenya to Nyeri. I cross the Equator back and forth seven or eight times on this ride, switching between northern and southern hemispheres, each time an excuse for souvenir stalls, now mostly locked up and tired. No tourists, except me, and I’m not very good news for them. Crossing the Equator, symbolic though it is, always brings a frisson of pleasure. 

And so to a noisy town called Karatina, that sounds more like a vegetable smoothie than a habitable place. A tedious search brought me to a fine hotel via four rotten ones. My instinct is well developed. And my budget pretty immovable. “Do you have an upstairs room?” I asked in one, as the manager showed me a gloomy room at the right price. “No, they are all booked!”

“All booked..?” The place was not far above a dump. 

“Yes, we have a group of customers who come and drink and sleep. No, there’s no noise! They will sleep by one or two…”

I was quickly out of there! Others fancied they were a bit more ‘international’ standard and tariff than they looked. And then I found one that was perfect. £14 a night for a top floor room with a view of Mount Kenya, friendly staff, even a large swimming pool, were I attracted. It’s the worst part of every travelling day, finding somewhere to sleep. But there’s always SOMEWHERE. 

And I was even invited to play a small walk on part in a student film in the hotel yard. No idea what it was all about, but a mzungu with white hair and gravitas obviously added something to their story about corrupt politicians. Richard, the director, promised he’ll send me the You Tube link..! Haha, life in Africa. It’s such FUN!

*

Some days require of me considerable stamina, patience and endless bloody-minded obstinacy. My friends know that I have a plentiful supply of the latter. As to stamina, at present I feel the fittest and strongest I’ve felt for some years. Fortunately. Patience has to be subsumed into the stubbornness! Wednesday was such a day…

323 kilometres, 200 miles. At maximum 45mph. Six and a half hours in the saddle. Half an hour stop for chai and chapatis. Boredom incarnate much of the way. Endless vistas of not very much, just bush lands to the distant horizon as I dropped from the shoulders of Mount Kenya down towards the lower parts of Kenya. It’s often forgotten that much of Kenya is a high land. Nairobi itself at 5000 feet and everything west of there, with the exception of the yawning gulf of the Rift Valley, getting higher to the western borders. It’s near that western border that I consider ‘home’ in Kitale, at 6000 feet. Tonight I am approaching the coastal plains and it’s hot and humid and any exertion brings on a heavy sweat. 

Mount Kenya at dawn – from the window of a £14 hotel! If you look closely, you can just see the remaining evidence of the disappearing glaciers.

*

The road that circles Mount Kenya – a big circle – seems for some reason to be inordinately busy, generally with terrible drivers. The first 50 kilometres of my day were tedious, to the regional town of Embu. Then I turned south onto a road I once took, 19 years ago on my Elephant. I was returning the old BMW to Mombasa to fly him home at the end of my 2002 journey that brought me from as far away as Cape Town to the top corner of Kenya at Lokkichoghio. I recollect not a thing of that ride – except that my shock absorber had burst and the road I took today was then just dust and rock and ruts. Thankfully, Kenya’s huge investment in road infrastructure has reached these eastern roads and I had 323 kilometres of smooth tarmac to negotiate in my comatose state. Empty of traffic too. Just mind-numbingly boring. 

At Kibwezi, the circular route on which I have travelled to avoid Nairobi and its environs, meets the main highway from Mombasa on the coast, up to Nairobi and far beyond into the interior of East Africa, carrying most of the road haulage from the docks to Uganda and Rwanda. Here I turn east and head down to the steamy coastline.

As I write, on Wednesday evening at sunset, (about 7.00) there’s another difference from the rest of Kenya. As I drink my Guinness the moans and groans of Islam drift across the oppressive stuffy air. I am in Moslem Kenya. How can this tedious drone be worship? I must accustom myself for the next week or so. Ear plugs at night… 

*

Thursday. Sometimes, although it may feel like defeat, discretion is the better part of obstinacy…

It’s not often that African traffic spooks me, after all I have ridden over 30,000 miles in 23 countries on the continent. I have ridden in the chaos of Ethiopia and the madness of Kampala. I have twice suffered the dangers of the Jinga to Kampala racetrack, that until now I thought the most hazardous stretch of African tarmac (and rubble). 

Forty kilometres from Kibwezi, at a scruffy roadside habitation called Mtito Andei, where I once stayed towards the end of my 2002 journey with my African Elephant, I decided enough was absolutely enough. I had evaded death by racing coach and non-disciplined heavy truck about twice a kilometre. One truck had even sprayed me with a fountain of diesel oil from its tank. Obscene personal 4X4 tanks, driven by impatient businessmen, had tried to force me off the road numerous times. I flicked V signs, shook my fists, and gesticulated at more oncoming death wagons than I have ever done in Africa before, where I usually manage to keep my temper when riding: it’s me that suffers the consequences of anger after all. 

At Mtito Andei I stopped, exhausted from just 25 miles, for chai and to calm down. A friendly engineer, Gordon, pulled in next to me in his car. “Oh, I have been behind you! I thought to myself, this must be a mzungu on an adventure. I could see from the way you rode and overtook; and you kept your position in the road against the trucks! I thought, this is an experienced rider, he must be mzungu!” 

“Well, I can’t take any more of it! I’m turning back. It’s another 200 miles of this to Mombasa, and there’s no choice but the same road back. I can’t face it!”

“And you’ll meet LOOONG roadworks on the way! Lines of big trucks and DUST!”

That was enough. Then, said Gordon, I can’t go north from Malindi, a historic town about a third of the way up the Kenyan coastal strip, without military escort because of Moslem fundamentalists. “No, they won’t let you go…” 

“Maybe I’ll just go back to Nairobi and take a trip to Mombasa on the new high speed Chinese train instead,” I suggested. “Now I am going back to the deserts and mountains.”

Oddly, I didn’t need quite so much stubbornness to follow the same long and tedious road back the way I came yesterday. I think the relief was so much, to be on a quiet, traffic-free road, that my mind just settled down to the long ride, content. I had two reasons for going down to Mombasa – a city in which I once stayed a few days when I flew the Elephant home from its airport to Heathrow in 2002 – and not a city that mush attracted me at the time. I was going to visit Maureen, one of the original Rico Girls that I have known since she was about two years old, and admire for her determination in studying photography and journalism largely by her own financial efforts; and I was going to visit Yuri, a small-time motorbike dealer from whom I bought the Mosquito in January 2017. He admits to a fondness for the little Suzuki he sold to me and was interested to see it again. 

Riding in these places has changed since I was here in 2002. It’s more dangerous since China flooded the continent with small, cheap motorbikes – boda-bodas. They swarm everywhere, badly driven, overloaded, desperate for a few pennies of business. They weave about and irritate car and truck drivers. I’m sure it used to be that if drivers saw a fast motorbike coming, they respected me; now they assume I am another annoying boda-boda and attack, driving me off the tarmac as they choose. Trouble is, I am NOT a boda-boda, and I am travelling twice as fast as most of the small Chinese machines. That means the closing distance is twice as acute. Everything happens twice as fast and reaction times are halved. Consequence: danger. Reaction: get the hell out of this race. For once discretion wins…

Maybe I can visit Maureen by train. 

*

Turning around, I hurried the forty kilometres back to where I had started, yelling obscenities at drivers who couldn’t hear and didn’t care, and turned so gratefully off that death track back onto the  ‘boring’, ‘endless’, ‘relentless’ tar road across the miles of bush country and eventually rising ever so slowly towards the bulk of Mount Kenya once more. Now I didn’t mind the tedium, the backache and heat. I was going away from that hell-road. 

*

By 4.30, I had been on the road for seven hours and was flagging. On the way through yesterday, I had seen that a small town – more a roadside strip – called Kivaa, had some hotels and guest houses, nothing extravagant or even attractive, but conveniently placed for me to break the journey. The Mountain View Hotel, in which I ended up with a huge room painted in lurid orange, vomit green and pungent mauve, with an octagonal window, is half built. It looks like a long term project for someone as there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way in. I entered through a kiosk selling gas bottles and stoves. The side that faces a small mountain – hence ‘Mountain View’ – is entirely of concrete block without so much as a peephole through which to view said mountain. Mountain View Hotel faces the wrong way… But Elizabeth, a fatly cheerful middle aged woman who, oddly, speaks no English at all, was all smiles, incomprehensible jokes, wobbly chuckles and helpfulness. We understood one another in that language that doesn’t require words: a vocabulary of goodwill and smiles. She was such a delight that I couldn’t move on. I’d have disappointed her too much! The price was about right at £13.70, the bed firm, the large tiled room spotless despite its sickening palette, and any defect was amply repaid by Elizabeth’s jolly character. Later, she even accompanied me to find supper, leaving me in a basic roadhouse, empty but for me and two cooks behind a steel grille, who rustled up rice with the local densely green vegetable, ‘sakuma’, and a couple of fried eggs. 

Every day bring something memorable. Even this Thursday, a day that brought anger and frustration, and smiles from rotundly ebullient Elizabeth. Africa has that ability: to defuse my moods by kindness and friendship from complete strangers, outgoing ways that make me feel ashamed of my impatient emotions and irritation. Thanks to sunny Elizabeth, a ghastly day ends with a smile… and, it must be said, a can of Guinness and one of Tusker, from a nearby petrol station. 

I’m back in the hotel south of Mt Kenya, uploading this episode, hoping to see the mountain at dawn tomorrow. Another day in Africa…