EAST AFRICA 2020 – SEVEN

 

Eugene, a natural performer

DAYS 49/50/51. FRIDAY – SUNDAY 14/15/16th FEBRUARY 2020. KITALE – KAPSABET. KENYA

After two unremarkable but warmly welcomed days at ‘home’ in Kitale, I have set off for a few days – the final short journeys before I leave East Africa this year.

It’s Sunday evening now, in a noisy (football league) Moslem hotel in Kapsabet, a bustling town of little attraction except the handsome surroundings of the Nandi Hills, carpeted with tea estates and graced by tall dark woodland. It’s fifty or sixty miles south of Kitale, on the way towards Lake Victoria. I’d intended to get to the town of Nandi Hills itself, only a few miles further along the hilly roads, but heavy rain once again intervened. I stopped and found a place to stay, where I have to drink tea instead of beer!

It’s not easy, finding my way in rural areas utterly lacking in signposting. There are few direction posts anywhere in the country, and none whatsoever on these dirt back roads. The consequence? I rode fifty rough kilometres and ended up about 25 kilometres from where I started, on the wrong road. Somewhere I made two thirds of a circle instead of a direct line to the small town I was seeking. It’s often pointless to even ask directions, as I often find that the people I ask – usually boda-boda riders, on the assumption that they at least know the roads – perhaps don’t actually understand my question and answer the one they think they might have heard! I probably added at least forty very hard kilometres to my ride today – having asked my way and received extravagant confirmatory nods.

On a few occasions, I’ve ridden back and forth on these hills and have a couple of pleasant short cuts. Well ‘short’ isn’t very accurate, I suppose. They are long rugged tracks over the rolling hills. One of them I discovered about three years ago and actually marked on my map as a lovely road. It WAS a lovely road, even a year ago. Now it’s severely damaged by the constant rains of this climate-changed dry season, surely one of the worst roads in East Africa. Of the 100 miles I rode today, about seventy must have been the hardest trails I’ve ridden in a long time. The rains have certainly altered the process of moving about this year. Today I have been shaken, rattled and battered. Only a year ago this was a pleasant smoothish gravel road. Not now.

It’s fine scenery though, stretches of forest and farmland and a hundred dilapidated ribbon villages of general ugliness. There’s not a lot of time to study them. I have to keep my eyes glued to the pitted track ahead. Every yard is a potential hazard on these roads. A moment’s inattention and I’m in trouble with the deep, serious parallel ruts, often a foot deep. I wonder if the physio nurse at Totnes hospital had anything like this in mind as a recovery technique for my Achille’s tendon! I doubt it somehow. But much of the way is only made bearable by standing on my foot pegs and transferring my weight to the front wheel and the centre of gravity down to the footrests. That way I can dance and weave, anticipate and correct. It’s hard exercise. The little bike takes a lot of punishment too.

It took over four hours to reach Kapsabet. For the last hour, I watched heavy storm clouds gather and hoped I would make it to the tarred road before the rain made my trail a slippery ski run. I knew the final miles would be surfaced and didn’t let up until I was there. Light rain began minutes later and I cut short my journey, finding a round thatched hut in this slightly down at heel guest house for £11.50. It has a fine, big bed with spotless sheets and a vast red Chinese blanket that never saw a sheep or any other living organism in its production. There’s a small bathroom with a warm shower to wash off the appalling red dust. (Except the water heater fused!). It’s chilly now. Kapsabet is quite high and the rain has cooled the air up here. I’m almost exactly on the Equator, but elevation signifies more than latitude. And this year the weather is so much cooler than usual. There’s much talk, too, of the record plague of locusts invading and stripping the vegetation of the northern desert and bush lands of Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. Biblical proportions, I guess you might say. Had I succeeded in my ambition of making the safari round the north of Uganda in the Karamajong region ten days ago, I might have been fighting off locusts as I rode. Pictures show them in veritable clouds up there.

 

I’ve just eaten parts of a chicken that ran a marathon recently. Quite likely won. The rice and vegetables were beaten to submission and held down until they drowned in oil. And, add to this, I have to drink bloody tea! And there’s a certain pall of deep misery that hangs over Moslem hotels. It’s a joyless religion and its women particularly gloomy. The travelling life. It’s not all exotic and adventurous by any means!

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DAY 52. MONDAY 17th FEBRUARY 2020. BROOKE. KENYA

I’m sitting in the terrace of the noisiest hotel in Kenya, shuddering to the sounds of large lorries with air brakes hissing and racing to a halt at the bottom of a long hill and crashing and rattling over the speed humps on the main East African highway outside. The road runs from Nairobi to the second Kenyan city, Kisumu, down on the lake. Rain is pouring and tumbling on the tin roof over my head. It’s cascading down. I’m wearing my jersey and fleece. This is the hot season. The dry season. In East Africa. Meanwhile, Australia is on fire, England is getting a month’s rain in a day and has 400 flood alerts, there’s a plague of locusts just to the north of here and the Antarctic recorded its highest ever temperature. And people claim climate change is fake news.

The Brooke Hotel is a vast ugly heap of pink and grey concrete with hideous pea green highlights, five storeys high around a central well. It’s a place of studied ugliness and bad design. It’s one of those places that when the cook drops a saucepan lid, the reverberations echo for minutes amongst the hard surfaces. So what does the bar staff do? Wind up the sub-bass speakers to rock the hotel in accompaniment to the screeching brakes, the rattling empty wagons and the rain hammering like machine gun fire on the tin roofs. I only stay here because all the hotels around the town of Kericho seem to have an over-egged view of their worth for some unaccountable reason. It seems to be one of the most expensive towns in which I ever searched for accommodation. Just out of interest, I asked the tariff at the next guest house up the road, a fancyish place set amongst the beautiful tea estates. The price for a resident is a bit more than double the room here, at £24, and for a foreigner it tallies at no less than 80 US dollars. I forbore to ask why it costs more to look after a foreigner than a Kenyan resident. I just puffed in disgust and left! I hate this extortion of outsiders. It smacks of exploitation. I rode away and returned to the Brooke Hotel, noise and all. I insisted on a room at the very back of the block, and being Monday night it’s probably quite empty anyway. I’ve an adequate room and a sense of justice preserved all for less than twelve quid!

I took against Kericho the very first time I visited – in 2001. It appears to have a snobbish appeal that is uncommon in Kenya. It’s the centre of the tea industry, surrounded by magnificent rolling hills carpeted in close-cropped tea bushes. But the town itself is as ugly as any other, crazy traffic, coarse petrol stations and supermarkets, glass and steel edifices of supreme architectural horror, and just behind the facade, the usual shacks and businesses of the struggling populous. Brooke, four miles to the north, is a squalid place, a rough trading centre. The poor relation to Kericho’s imagined splendour. So the hotel costs a fraction.

Tea, like an expensive carpet

The ride down from the Nandi Hills is fine. A winding road that drops to the lower lands that now run away towards Lake Victoria, itself at over 1000 metres high. Tea and sugar are the main crops, on an industrial scale hereabouts. Brooke, this straggly marketing centre, is synonymous with Brooke Bond, the centre of endless tea estates. Estates, I found a couple of years ago, that don’t like visitors. I suspect that might be to hide some pretty awful employment practices… Tomorrow morning, hopefully back in sunshine, I’ll sit on the first floor terrace of this hideous hotel, as now, and look across the smiling miles of brilliantly green tea bushes to the black tree-clad hills under blue skies. It’s a magnificent landscape. When it’s not bucketing with rain.

I came this way round once again, to say hello to Nashon, the kindly, shy mechanic who has helped me out on various occasions with my little Mosquito, since the time we fortuitously met when the starter gears shed several teeth into the engine of my machine, necessitating the entire stripping and washing of every cog, chain, pipe, pump, shaft and nut of the bike. All this carried out onto a flattened cardboard box and greasy nylon sack on the oily mud at the edge of the road, under my very anxious eyes. A process that took a couple of days and a lot of my peace of mind. But it turned out that Nashon wasn’t a Chinese-bike butcher, but a reasonably knowledgeable mechanic who went way beyond the call of duty to a passing customer. And one thing I have learned – and appreciate – in Africa, is that going back to say hello shows respect and bolsters the standing of my acquaintances and friends. Nashon’s a kind man. Worthy of passing by to pay my respects.

DAY 53. TUESDAY 18th FEBRUARY 2020. ELDAMA RAVINE. KENYA

It’s the third time I’ve stayed in Eldama Ravine, and the third hotel. I wish I’d found this one first. The first night I stayed here is memorable for the noisiest disco I ever suffered, with bass beats that shook the entire, vast, four storey hotel. Last year I stopped a night in a scruffy place off the road, which was acceptable, but now I’ve found a decent room at the back of an interestingly designed building with raised bridges leading between the upper rooms, and even a balcony looking over some scrubby fields to distant hills. A good place. Quiet, comfortable and cheap. And a not bad outdoor restaurant too. The only trouble with the place is heavy cold rain tonight once again. But the hotel can’t help that, and again I reached dry accommodation before the rains.

This was a light day. I spent some time in gentle conversation with Nashon and his wife in their one room home. They’ve a girl and two boys and how they manage in one 12X12 room I’m never sure. But many many Africans do just that. A bed behind a curtain, raised up on boxes to utilise the space beneath, a pile of old suitcases for wardrobes, an easy chair and settee, a coffee table, stereo system, TV and gas ring. All in one room beneath a tin roof, cheek by jowl with seven other rooms in two rows, a narrow walkway and communal washing space between. This is life for millions of African people. There’s a row of latrines and a scabby yard with worn grass and mud. Inside, the walls are covered by religious posters and calendars. It’s not so different, I suppose, to working class Britain a bit over 100 years ago . It’s surprising how we forget our own history and react with horror to others’…

Nashon’s workshop is nearby, a greasy, oily lock up by a broken street in the market area of the unattractive town. Kindly, his wife insisted on making milky chai and I only just managed to avoid fried eggs, having just finished breakfast in my hotel up the road. Nashon and the family borrowed a car and went home to visit his mother yesterday, a village about 40 kilometres away. He was taking today off, but generously replaced my brake shoes in an attempt to give me a rear brake again. A pair of Indian brake shoes cost £2.30, probably one tenth of what I might expect at home. He’s a conscientious mechanic, always going beyond the minimum and doing a professional job. The bike is better for 45 minutes’ of his ministrations.

We then rode to find an arboretum for which I have searched on various occasions, a pleasant public park owned by the major tea estate, itself part of the giant Unilever multinational. He also showed me a charming garden, open to the public on a private farm – tea and dairy – a few miles from Brooke. Set in a valley backed by woodland and carpeted by tea bushes, was a small lake and trickling brooks. Abundant bird life swooped and flitted about. Peaceful and brightly sunny under the blue dome of the sky.

Then it was off on a winding road through hilly country, riding northwards to Mau Summit, where the old colonial railway from Mombasa on the coast to Kampala, half way across Uganda, toiled towards the heights of the Equator. At 8300 feet, the air has a chill that forced me to stop and put on my fleece jerkin under my riding jacket. Tonight at Eldama Ravine I even resorted to a bowl of soup to warm up. I had to join the unpleasant main highway for some miles, the one that carries all the traffic from Nairobi and Mombasa up to the Kenyan highlands and on to Uganda. I dislike this road very much. It’s a constant line of steep hills with toiling lorries belching their incontinent way at crawling speed, causing faster vehicles to risk all in a race to overtake. Happily, I have only about fifteen miles of this to suffer. Another year I found a direct short cut on an appalling, rock and dirt road, but discretion suggests I avoid the unnecessary ones this year; they are so damaged by the recent weather, and my foot damaged by rounders. Turning off onto the quiet road to Eldama Ravine, I crossed the Equator once more.

And so to this busy small town an hour before the rain began. A gentle day of generally pleasant scenic hills. I know this region quite well by now and always enjoy the ride. Spacious country.

DAY 54. WEDNESDAY 19th FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA

It’s three months since my orthopaedic boot was removed. As I wrote before, I rather doubt that the hospital had in mind quite the exercise regime I have undertaken. Three to six months was their diagnosis for recovery time. I can’t claim recovery, but it IS getting stronger with my harsh treatment. The ankle swells less each day now. I was happy this morning to see that my ankles matched exactly when I got up from a long, good sleep in the quiet hotel. Progress, I felt.

One of my favourite roads in this part of the world is the one that winds from Eldama Ravine, a regional town of little attraction, via Tenges to Kabarnet. I’ve ridden this way at least once each of the years I have spent riding in East Africa, sometimes more often. I like it because it has such variety and such scenic splendours. In only about 75 miles it coils through climatic zones, climbing alongside yawning drops into the Rift Valley on one side and the Kerio Valley on the other. In the day I climb and drop thousands of feet, twisting down to spiky acacia, aloes and cactus-like plants scratching a life from pale sand and rocks, upwards through thirsty eucalyptus trees, leaves shimmying in the breezes from below and on up to coniferous woodland with magnificent views down into deep valleys. Then, from Kabarnet, the process unwinds the other way, serpentining down into the vast split in the Earth’s surface, deep into the dry Kerio Valley, the green forested opposite wall of which looks entirely unscalable – and I know of only three ‘roads’ that do scale the heights. Two of them are seriously rough rocky staircase tracks and the third the only viable road on four normal wheels, that wriggles and clambers back up to Iten, some five thousand feet above, atop the jagged precipices of the cliffs of the escarpment. Two thirds of the way up is familiar Kessup.

Another reason I relish the Tenges road so well is that it is amongst the friendliest of the area. I suspect that the education level is high in this county. This could be explained by the county being that of the birthplace and home of the late crook, Daniel Arap Moi, president of Kenya for many years. The home regions of presidents in Africa get preferential treatment. It’s the payoff for buying all those votes. I remember back in 2001 I noted that this region had the best, smoothest roads in East Africa. “It’s the home of the president! Of course it has the best roads; you could play billiards on them!” declared Rico.

One of my happiest activities on these footloose safaris is to stop and meet the people. Towards the top of the winding potholed road, a view of the huge Rift Valley was suddenly released from constant roadside growth. On rounding a bend I looked down onto an open saddle with big views far into the sun-bleached distance. I pulled up and stepped over the steel accident barrier to enjoy the vista and take a picture. Within moments I was joined by a whole family, and friends, from the only visible homestead on the saddle, their small home 100 yards away on the precipitous edge of the road. They came to welcome me and out of open curiosity. And curiosity is an attribute I greatly admire. Curiosity and compassion, I always say, make people good humans. I stayed half an hour with those ten cheerful, respectful people, four men, some teenagers, a number of children and Priscilla, a smart, handsome middle aged woman. Boda-bodas pulled up to join the interest. Everyone exuded warmth and welcome. I felt very privileged to be sitting on that remote roadside barrier with such charming, warm-hearted people. The one thing we shared was common interest and warmth. I felt accepted for myself, with no real sense that I represented anything other than a different human being, with unusual attributes that they didn’t often get an opportunity to investigate. It was a delightful meeting.

Riding on, the road wiggles along the very ridge between the two giant valleys, irregular fields hacked and fought from the steeply sloping mountainsides through generations of hard physical work. Small houses cling to the slopes and fences of vertically split logs add staccato graphic hatching to the green roadside, the views downward pixillated through the bright gaps. Mature trees spread their glorious shade above and glimpses of incredibly scaled panoramas flicker behind the abundant growth. High on the mountain, the woodland gives way to rich natural forest, heavy leafed trees draped with lianas, the sunlight dappling and flashing in the canopy high overhead. It’s simply magnificent. From one small rocky promontory, I seem to be able to gaze over half Africa, displayed into endless heat haze at least 100 miles to the east.

Spotting a ‘hotel’ – a mean shack with a large Chinese flask prominent on its wooden counter, I chose to stop for chai. Served by polite Alfred, thrilled to have a mzungu stop by to chat and drink his sweet tea and eat a couple of dry chapatis, I was immediately joined by two small girls, pulling a Chinese chair ever closer to the white ancient, and politely greeted by most of the village elders and cheerily acknowledged by every passing pedestrian and vehicle. I stayed an hour, relaxing in the welcome of a whole community. “Aren’t you afraid?” so many ask me at home. Afraid of feeling so content I move to this remotely splendid mountain village, maybe!

From that tea house I texted William that I would arrive later at Kessup. I’d thought I might stay somewhere on the road, but Kessup was only another 60 kilometres or so, and I know I am received so kindly here. It felt like a good way to end a contented, people-filled day. So I rode on, down into the steamy Kerio Valley so far below and toiling up towards the familiar guest house and my usual room. At this rate they’ll change the room’s name from Mexico (I have no idea…) to another ‘Jonathan’s Room’.

It’s one of the best 75 miles you can ride in this part of the world. Eldama Ravine to Kessup. Just lovely. Of course, I am assured of a happy welcome from William and the guest house staff. I’m almost a fixture this year. It’s considerably warmer tonight than on my last perishing visit. We’ve sat outside in the open garden, with a young Norwegian traveller, as the night drew its veil over the spreading valley far below, now a mystery of darkness, a few winking lights and the promise of an elephant or two beneath the equatorial stars. It’s a fine place to be.

Leaving the hotel this morning, the gateman came to unlock the steel gates. I’d woken to dull skies, chill and damp earth. Unpromising, although the gloom burned off in the equatorial sunshine. I was, after all, only about five miles from that tantalising imaginary line.

“I don’t like your weather much this year!” I quipped, as I zipped up my jacket, pulled on gloves and swung my leg over the bike.

“Yes, it’s all changing! But it’s down to God!”

“Don’t blame God for this!” I exclaimed. “This is Man! Entirely Man! The selfishness and greed of mankind!”

“But what can we do? God makes the weather…”

And there you have a problem to ponder. However much climate activists may try to change perceptions in the West, much of the world is educated in old religious dogma and myth, and is persuaded only God can change the fates of the planet. “Oh, we’ll pray! What can WE do? It’s the will of God!”

I rode the next few miles somewhat despondently.

Philemon

DAY 55. THURSDAY 20th FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA

A typical day in Kessup is for William and I to walk down in the villages. It’s funny how this has become so much part of my East African experience. After breakfast we wander off down the stony pathways between small houses and shambas and just see who we meet. Today, young Nore, a charming and mature 21 year old Norwegian student accompanied us. He appeared to get great satisfaction from the activity too, reacting happily to the many excited children who greeted us, clung to our hands and pulled the hair on our arms. He was patient and intrigued and actually commented at one point that this was the best day he’d had. He’s on a six month world tour, starting recently in Oman, on to Kenya and will wander down through some of Africa, down to Australia and back through California. A warm young man, happy to join in our unexciting peregrinations on the green hillsides.

We walked contentedly northwards along the plateau. It’s half term, so many were the children calling and following us as we meandered amongst fields and homesteads, women hard at work planting, weeding and harvesting and many of the men, as so often, sitting about talking and drinking bulsa.  We too joined some men beneath shady trees to take fibrous bulsa. Nore impressively tried his best, even if he didn’t express much enthusiasm. Just being seen to drink the rather sour liquid, made from dusty fermented maize, gains a good deal of respect. He’s the makings of a good, sensitive traveller. I’m amused to find that his father crossed the Sahara in 1987, as did I.

Everywhere, people greet and chatter. We shake hands a hundred times, laugh with cheerful children, excited to touch not just one, but two, mzungus. It’s happy fun and warm-spirited. William is a good guide. He knows his community well, and his community knows him. He’s respected and well thought of, a man with integrity, honesty and good sense.

It’s rough ground and taxes my ankle. But a long rugged walk seems to be good recovery exercise. The swelling is less each day. Tomorrow is, though, to be the big test. We intend to hike all the way down to the Kerio Valley bottom, hundreds of metres down the steep, rocky slopes into the furnace below. I wonder how that will go..? I’m in kill or cure mode, fed to the teeth of this frustrating disability.

DAY 56. FRIDAY 21st FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA

I’m rather self satisfied tonight. I did it. Obstinate maybe, but I walked, indeed scrambled, down no less that 810 metres of the escarpment into the Great Rift Valley! That’s 2630 feet. A three hour hike on rough rocks and slippery gravel, tiring more for the intense concentration to carefully inspect each footfall, than the distance. Three to six months’ recovery, the hospital warned me. Well, after three months and two days, maybe I am not CURED, but I certainly feel that I am well on the way to recovery, despite the fact that the three month cure is probably for people half my age.

We set off at nine, William, Nore and I. Taking advantage of the cool of the morning. Every metre the heat increased. We walked across the plateau to the edge, where the slopes drop away dramatically, with enormous vistas of the Kerio Valley far below.

At this point, last evening, I realised that sleep was more pressing than my journal. The light went out at 8.30! Twelve hours’ sleep was required. This morning, I wake with two matching ankles. No swelling. It seems that hiking to the bottom of the Great African Rift Valley is good physiotherapy!

So, back to the clamber to the depths… Kessup sits on a plateau, maybe three miles long by three quarters from the high cliffs up to the highlands, to the drop to the steaming depths below. In total, the depth of the Rift here is about 1500 metres – 4900-odd feet. Kessup sits at about 2000 metres, the valley floor, where we emerged from the wooded hill, at 1190.

It’s hard walking, but of course local people do it frequently – often up and down in a day. Many families, William’s included, graze their cattle down there, under the care of herders. Atanas is William’s herder, a cheerful, spare man prone to cheerful drunkenness at any opportunity – like the visit of a mzungu and the infusion of a pound that will buy him enough of the killer local spirit to add to the bulsa that William will drink here, to make him inebriated for the remainder of the day. It’s a life of privations but not an arduous one, looking after grazing cows and goats. They do all the work, Atanas just has to sit under a tree and gaze into space. Once again, I wonder so much what occurs in his head in the hours he can doze patiently on a rock in the Rift Valley? He can probably read and write, just about. He’s some basic English. He has – of course – his phone. No doubt he fills the wonderful silence with terrible (to me) music played from a speaker the size of a drawing pin. He probably communes with the few other people who choose to live in this outpost of humanity. He has milk and ugali for basic sustenance, and a rugged stick and mud hut in which to sleep – and tonight to sleep off the alcohol. There’s nothing much to talk about but goats and cows – and probably league football. He’s a house and family up here on the Kessup plateau; I’ve photographed his daughter Sharon in my peregrinations with William. I guess he has domestic problems to ponder: where the next money’s coming from; how to arrange his food for the evening; a few practicalities about the animals. Maybe that’s all any of us think about most of the time. I suppose life’s not made up of philosophical musings – but it is greatly stimulated by reading a book; appreciating thoughtful opinions; considering the diversities beyond our own very limited community. Things to which Atanas has little exposure as he sits on his rock on the scrubby hillside in the furnace of the Rift Valley.

We only have to do it once, thankfully. William and I have talked of this for four years, walking down to see Atanas and William’s cows. This trip has been inspired by my Harberton neighbours, Jill and Ken, keen beekeepers. I was in touch by email last week (about the water from three consecutive storms probably flowing down my chimney!) and happened to send them a photo I had taken of a small commercial bee farm project that Alex and I discovered near Sipi. By return came an enthusiastic response and questions that I’d never considered, here in Africa, where I often see local beehives hanging in trees as I pass. “Can we find some hives and a beekeeper?” I asked William a couple of days ago. “My neighbours would be very interested.”

“Oh, of cooourse! We can find many! But not here. We have to go dow-en to the valley. There are many keeping bees there.” Immediately, out came his phone. “I will ora-ganise it! But your foot..? Will you manage?”

Manage it I did! I admit I’m happy it was no further. By the time we reached the valley floor, almost three hours after starting out, I was exhausted, as much by the intense concentration for every footstep as for the exertion of the scramble itself. I have lost some confidence as a result of my stupid injury. I don’t have my usual easy balance and quickness of recovery from a misstep, and am terrified – as yet – of damaging that ankle again. And the muscles in my right leg are still quite reduced. William, with his love of discipline and time, allowed us two ten minute breaks (phone clock in hand!), but for two and three quarter hours we stumbled and slid down those narrow cattle paths. He’s informative too, is William, and has a new listener in Nore. He pointed out medicinal trees and a tree from which, in former times, before all the animals were hunted to extinction or escaped to reserves, hunters used to poison their arrows. “Oh, if it gets into your blood, you are a-gone! Huh! No chance, if it gets in the blood!” William, as a youth, remembers hunting for antelope down here. “Are there animals now?” asks Nore.

“NOO! Only in the reserves!” William’s 54. They’ve been wiped out, unless protected by national laws and rangers, in his lifetime. Over most of Africa. Now and again, outside a park or reserve, I may see an odd antelope, zebra or ostrich. They are in remote places far from habitation, on dirt roads in the backwoods. Only in the wildest areas, deep in the deserts maybe, will you see animals really in the wild. Most game is behind fences now, corralled largely for tourist dollars, managed and accessible. “Aren’t you afraid of wild animals?” people ask me. About the biggest I see is a squirrel, unless I am on a public road that happens to pass through a park or reserve.

The sun was high when we reached our destination, a glade of trees by a water tank where we could rest and William could arrange with his brother in law to bring us bulsa for him and Atanas – with a gesture for me – and milky tea for Nore and I to rehydrate. William’s brother in law, Philip, keeps bees, but here it’s a young man’s game, and Philip at 63 is, in Kenya, too old for it. Leonard was to be our guide to the beekeeping arts in the Kerio Valley.

Leonard shows me, on an empty hive, how he opens a hive to get the honey.

A smart young man, with a decent education and a determined business acumen, Leonard took up the beekeeping mantle from his grandfather. “Since 2008, I went with my grandfather, even as he grew holder.” Leonard has an odd habit of adding an ‘h’ to his vowels. “Heven when he left this a-world, he was a man of bees!” He scrambled down the hillside to a tree in which one of his hives was suspended, busy with bees. “It’s han inheritance of sorts in a family. Somehow a talent. This beekeeping, we prepare ourselves. Hit is somehow in the blood of someone! You love honey, somehow it’s a-good to keep bees!” Leonard keeps seven hives down here and thirty up on the highland plateau far above.

A low level hive

Leonard clambered agilely into another tree, where a big hollowed log hive, about a metre long and half a metre in circumference, hung from a fairly spindly branch. The upper half of the tube was raised. They had opened it, taken the honey and the hive had needed some restoration. By leaving the hive open, the bees had been driven to find an alternative home. Leonard and his boys had repaired the old wooden log and now it was ready to host another colony. He now closed the two halves together and stuffed leafy twigs into the surrounding gap. “We close, and may-a-be by next week we have new bees!” This was a big hive. “From this we may only harvest once in the year. In Haugust or December maybe. We can get maybe 20 kilos of honey from this hive,” he called down, balancing on a bouncy bough. “From the smaller hives like the one there, we may harvest twice.”

“Eh! It’s a young man’s game, working up there!” I exclaimed, watching the bough bend.

“Yes, we will have to be three men to hempty this hive. When it is full of honey, it is a-heavy!”

“What about protection?”

“Hah!” he laughed. “We can use hoveralls and protection on the down ones,” pointing to a big hive hung only at shoulder height nearby, “but if we use hoveralls and gloves in the big trees high we damage the cloth-es. So we use mud.”

“Mud?”

“Yes, we put mud on our skin. Loam mud.”

“What about your head and face?”

“Yes, there too! Hall over our skin. To hide the smell of our bodies. And we hopen the hives at night when the bees are quiet. We use smoke to drive them out and we pull the honey with our a-hands. We tie a plastic container in the tree and we scoop the honey and lower it down. We honly put hives in trees where we can climb!”

I imagined three men hanging about in that tree, at night, surrounded by disturbed bees, pulling horribly sticky honey from the upper half of a heavy log with their hands, stickiness everywhere imaginable, mud on limbs and faces, bees buzzing, the tree shaking… “I hope you get good money for the honey?”

The bees build their combs either longwise or diagonal

“Yes, it’s good business. We get about 4000 to 5000 Kenya shillings for 4 kilos!” That’s about £8-10 a kilo, pretty good money in Kenya – but of course, they only get it once or twice a year. “We let it settle and the top honey, we get more than 1000 bob a kilo, the bottom a bit less. Our hives? This one is from 2008. The time? Oh, about four more years maybe. This hive was for my grandfather.” He showed me his stock of heavy log hives, marked inside with the patterns of combs. “Some go this way!” he pointed out the diagonal pattern across the hollow of the thick wood, “and hothers, they make it along the hive. These hives are from cypress wood. We used to make cedar, my grandfather, he made cedar, but now there’s no cedar left. Oh, I like bees! My grandfather, I inherit from him.”

Leonard

We clambered back to the grove where William was drinking bulsa and Atanas by now had moved on to the wirigi, killer spirit.

Atanas, so pleased to have wazungu visitors

A shy boy, Rogers, had brought a green plastic jug of tea for Nore and I from the distant road, 250 feet below and a quarter of a mile away. Philip had brought us honey to taste – about half a teacupful each – with a spoon. I’ve never eaten half a teacup of honey in my life. “Oh! It is good for the energy!” exclaimed William. I spooned in the honey, complete with dead bees, doubtless some mud and fibrous bits and pieces. It was as if I could feel the energy flowing back into my blood! It was delicious and a miracle of nutrition to tired muscles, still tingling from a 2630 foot scramble downhill. The sun was intense. Goats scavenged around us. Atanas drank himsel-uf a degree closer to an early death and William and Leonard chatted quietly. We two Europeans were happy to sit and stare at the wide valley below, content – as no Kenyan will ever be, William admits – to just think. “Oh, we like conversation! When we are walking or sitting like this we MUST talk!”

Philip

In the mid afternoon we stumbled the rest of the way to the white dust track in the valley, where some benighted families live in this inferno and stoney inhospitability. Even Nore, a tough 21 year old, admitted he was happy we had decided on the strength of my damaged leg, not to climb back the 2630 feet to
kessup.

William, Nore, Atanas, JB and Philip at the bottom of the Rift Valley. Kessup is somewhere far above us! I have to build those muscles back on the right leg!

We negotiated for a boda-boda ride to the road junction at the bottom of the long, winding climb back to the plateau. Four up – and Nore is perhaps even a centimetre or two taller than me, and a good deal tougher – we ground along on a 100cc motorbike. The rider, Sam, would rather make an extra 50 bob (40 pence) and have the tyre rubbing on the underside of the metal mudguard than sympathise with his machine. I remember that road from four years ago, when it seemed like elastic and never ending. I’d ridden down from the top of the escarpment on a sandy, degraded track beyond the north end of the Kessup plateau and had not reckoned on the fact that the return to the road was 50 miles of sand and rock. It was that evening, exhausted and filthy, that I found the Lelin Campsite and guest house, and next morning the manager introduced me to William, now perched on the carrier of the boda-boda behind a rider and two very big wazungus.

At the road we pushed our way into a vastly overcrowded matatu, 21 adults, a baby and assorted bags boxes and rolls of roofing sheets, to uncomfortably grind our way back up the 800 metres height to our evening beer. “Walking down was more comfortable than the journey home!” I joked with William, falling undignified from the packed vehicle.

And, amazingly, almost no oedema in my ankle, despite the exertions. I must suggest to Torbay Hospital that a cure for a ruptured Achille’s might involve scrambling down into Africa’s Great Rift Valley! At least it’s entertaining. Better than stretching that damned rubber exercise band all the time.

DAY 57. SATURDAY 22nd FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA

Another easy day of meeting the people as we wandered the village lanes. It’s been fun to have another mzungu along, with his obvious enthusiasm for the simple activity – unusual in one so young. Nore has enjoyed his interaction with many village people and learned a good deal about rural African life quickly, something that’s often not easy for a mzungu to investigate, yet is how so many African people exist. He’s a good traveller and already says he thinks he may travel quite a lot, more than his contemporaries, most of whom appear to have taken a year’s placement in another university, while he chose a footloose period. He’s a surprisingly mature attitude to all he sees about him, and a pleasant confidence that makes him popular with the villagers.

Blessing

Once again, we drifted about the red tracks and lanes, greeting all we passed, sitting here and there, spreading a bit of understanding, we hoped; purchasing some green vegetables for supper – the guest house, like most African kitchens, relies on scraggy meat and starch; drinking some bulsa in one compound, to the excitement fo the inhabitants and seeking avocados unsuccessfully. We met Martin, an age-mate to William, a wiry man with a lined face and shaggy hair now touched with white, who made the foolish decision to look for some money by smuggling on the Uganda border in 1986. Not a good time to enter that country without papers. It was the time that the present crook, Museveni, was leading the resistance to the previous (even worse) crook Idi Amin. The young fellow was arrested on suspicion of spying, threatened, tortured, saw some appalling atrocities and mass graves filled with skulls – Africa can treat life very cheaply – and was tried. He avoided execution but the soldiers destroyed his right forefinger and thumb so that he wouldn’t be able to fire a gun. Now, 34 years on, he tells the story with a laugh at his own adventurous stupidity. Underneath, no doubt, the trauma must be real. What is it about Africa that causes such terrible cruelty? Ordinary people, largely compassionate, professing allegiance to Christianity or Islam almost universally, who then carry out unbelievable atrocities on their fellows, sometimes even in their own kith and kin. It’s difficult to forget the story of the Hutu child in Rwanda who killed his Tutsi mother because she was of the ‘wrong’ tribe in that awful conflict – the evidence of which I have witnessed in all those broken skull and shattered bone mausoleums outside almost every village in the small country. Mind you, I ask what it is about Africa and forget to question the atrocities amongst ‘normal’ people in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf States… Yes, Africa has no monopoly on massacres of their fellows.

Invited into numerous houses, we managed, by William’s diligence with his clock, so frequently in hand, to return in time for the first football match of his day on the satellite TV that his daughter sends him on the proceeds of her nursing studies in Australia. It was a bribe to stop him wasting his time, money and health on booze! He laughs as he tells Nore that story. “Oh, Jonathan and my daughter, they both told me to leave the alcohol! And the cigarettes! Now I only take a little bulsa sometimes.” He is passionate about football, especially ‘his team’, Manchester City. He showed us his TV, and innocent that I am, I had no idea that you can watch football, from somewhere, at any and every hour of the day or night! His house is basic, a place of wooden walls and a burning zinc roof. He has some battered and threadbare foam armchairs and a settee, an untidy sideboard and a small table with a gas ring and his entire crockery, cutlet and utensils. A tattered net curtain divides off the plywood-enclosed bedroom area. It’s the necessities, with no frills or comforts except the TV. It’s how most rural Kenyans live. I was impressed to find his house without any security whatsoever. “Oh, no, everyone knows William, and William knows everyone! No one will steal here.”

William and Nore and a couple of villagers drink bulsa on a hot morning

Tomorrow I’ll head Kitale way once more. I’ve just a few more days in East Africa before I fly to South Africa on Friday. It’s been a different sort of tip, this time. I’ve not ridden far and seen no new horizons, but there’s a satisfaction in strengthening friendships and becoming a familiar figure – evidenced by how often in the past couple of days I have been hailed from fields and compounds by my name. I’ve broken through some of the exotic mzungu state and am accepted as an equal in these villages.

EAST AFRICA 2020 – SIX

Mary, a niece of Alex

DAYS 42 – 44. FRIDAY 7th to SUNDAY 9th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

These have been quiet, uneventful days with my ‘family’ in Uganda. Alex exploited at work by his mean-spirited boss, who embodies all that is bad about African management; Precious delighted to have her mzungu to look after; the children Keilah and Jonathan, cheerfully filthy in the mud and dust of Sipi. Jonathan, at only 15 months, pisses as he goes and then sits about in the dust and still-damp mud. He’s probably the dirtiest child I’ve ever seen! If he wears them at all, he goes through six or seven pairs of red mud-stained trousers a day. Keilah, at almost three, is a bit more self controlled, but ends the day with a red hue. Washed for bed, they look wholesome and happy, contented, healthy children living a very natural life, building immunity every second. “You should eat a peck of dirt before you die,” was the wisdom of my grandmother’s generation. It kept us immune to illnesses and allergies so prevalent amongst over-protected modern children. Little Jonathan must have had his peck already. And he’s only 15 months! As I look down from my plastic Chinese table on the raised restaurant-to-be, he is sitting happily in the mud flower border, spooning dirt and weeds into his mouth, where everything goes.

Dirty but happy. Jonathan, ‘JB’

There are children everywhere, shouting happy ‘hellos’ from the track that passes the new restaurant on stilts, that displays the mzungu so well to the passing villagers as I write. I wave back every few moments as I try to recover from Precious’s vast breakfast.

Family life in the Rock Gardens compound

No child in these rural villages has any toys except those created by lively young imaginations. An old motorbike tyre used as a hoop is one of the most common. Trucks made from scrap and pushed on a stick. On a local walk we found eight children having raucous fun bouncing up and down on a long springy eucalyptus tree that had been felled across a small valley, some of them falling off into the undergrowth by a muddy stream. Great glee when the mzungu joined in for a few moments. Mud makes a glorious plaything of course. They live amongst cows and goats, muck and filth. Many will never attend school.

A felled tree for a plaything

A pretty young girl, maybe 11 or 12, is sometimes around the house these days. She’s Lizpa, one of a relatively small Ugandan family of merely seven children to illiterate, unemployed parents. They live in a rude compound nearby. The father does nothing much; the mother has babies. And probably works herself to the bone. None of the children go to school; there’s no one to encourage them to do so. Lizpa helps Precious around the compound, doing small menial jobs in exchange for some food and second hand clothing. She doesn’t go to school, will probably never read or write. Her role in life will be having lots more babies – who will never go to school or learn to read and write. Like family cattle, she represents wealth: one day, probably very soon, she will be worth a dowry…

The first born of her family, a girl, is already married at 13 or 14, Precious tells me. And so history repeats itself. The churches do nothing to stem the overwhelming flood tide, the mosques no more; the appallingly corrupt government under its ruthless crook, Museveni, one of the richest presidents in Africa, responsible for so much unrest and crimes, has an interest in keeping the populous uneducated. They’re easier to control, don’t make waves, can be bought off with pennies. It’s one of the most corrupt, cynical regimes in Africa. A ballooning population. Half of Ugandans are under the age if 15. Literacy is low. Poverty is widespread. And not one of the so-called morally responsible authorities – the churches, the mosques, the government – does a damned thing about it, all self-interested in their profits and power.

Sons are still a gift from god, girls a trial and mothers who produce girl babies punished and discarded. No man would admit to the science that the man might have a part in transmitting the ‘wrong’ genes. It’s a woman’s responsibility to produce sons, not daughters. Men whose wives produce daughters find other women. Precious tells me the shocking story of a mother who died two weeks after giving birth – to a girl – whose husband ‘married’ another woman the day after the death. Women are baby-producing machines for many Ugandan men. Sadly, most of the ones sitting about the local bars drinking violent local spirits all day, don’t drink themselves to death until AFTER they father numerous children, leaving their upbringing to downtrodden, hard working, largely uneducated mothers. It’s a pleasure to be for a few days part of a responsible, thinking family here in Sipi, a family that enlightens me so much about the life around me.

Alex in his mother’s kitchen

Alex paid for much of his education himself, taking whatever small jobs he could find. One of nine children, there wasn’t enough money to pay for all. Alex is also committed to his voluntary work as a Youth Champion, volunteering for various causes, working out of Kapchorwa. These idealistic men attempt to spread messages of limiting family size, stopping FGM, educating girls, preventing violence against women and girls and the equal worth of girl children. They are relentlessly optimistic in the face of the appalling inequities all about them. “I was talking with one of my colleagues today. He was telling me how he regrets the third child. He has two boys and a girl”. Alex stirs our fire with a stick. “He wonders how he can educate the third one? He looks at his small salary and wonders how he can make it meet three children… So I see change! Change in people’s thoughts.”

Precious and Alex intend to stop at two. “Even the second, well, he was really an accident!” They both laugh as little Jonathan clambers about the flaming fire.

A view from the Sipi escarpment

Walking with Precious amongst the local shambas, deep in the matoke trees, we met a sister-in-law to Alex. She’s a house in a lovely situation, on the edge of a steep bluff, a small lawn looking west into the sunset across half Uganda. She has a girl and a boy. “It’s enough!” she exclaims. “Two, I can feed and educate them”. Maybe enlightenment is dawning? But is it too late, in this alarmingly over populated land, in which the message only reaches those with the education and freedom to reject overarching ‘traditional’ attitudes? A land in which the majority of women share status with the pack animals? More cattle, more children – the ambitions of the overwhelming majority of African men.

With lovely Precious I sit and talk. She doesn’t get the exposure to the outside world that Alex enjoys so much. Her education level is lower than his, but she’s a natural good sense and sense of justice. Her knowledge of the world may be smaller, but her thoughts and opinions of what she sees around her are astute. She’s from the other side of the country, somewhat marooned here amongst another culture. Where Alex is separated by his well developed intellect, she’s also an outsider in this traditional community. Oddly, they face a lot of jealousy for their drive and ambition. Locals would quite like to see them ‘brought down a peg’, despite their humility, and respect for their neighbours. My impression is that much of this envy comes from the deep, deep corruption inherent in this country. Values based so firmly on the jealousy of relative wealth from hard work and endemic poverty from idleness – and witnessing so many clamber the ladder by petty corrupt means.

Lunchtime at home

Corruption is commonplace at every level. Petty opportunist dishonesty and exploitation of any small employment advantage. Maybe this is why I found Alex and Precious so attractive, for I instinctively KNOW that they are 100% honest with money, in a country where few are. Precious tells me that any money I send to Alex for their guest house project is scrupulously used and accounted for. It’s never diverted to frivolous use. “Not even a soda! He uses it all very exactly!”

I’m not in any personal danger whatsoever in Uganda. This is a country with no threat of theft of any sort except in the handling of money, especially other people’s. It’s a land that issues summary local justice. Cry ‘thief!’ here and the mob will exact swift revenge on any miscreant. It’s in financial dealings that the corruption lies.

Says Alex, “The NGOs know how corruption is so common, so they won’t deal with the local managers of their projects at all. They say they’ll only pay money direct to the service providers. Straight to our hotel in Kapchorwa, for instance. But we Ugandans, we find ways around that! The local managers do a deal with the hotel owners. They report to their NGO sponsors – the Western charities – that they have a training session or a workshop for 44 participants. But there are really only 34. The NGO pays the money for 44 trainees and the hotel event organisers share the rest with the charity manager…” He says it with no pride. Alex despises this corruption. “How can Uganda develop if it’s people are like this..?”

“It is a behind country, a very behind country!” agrees Precious.

“Me, I won’t have anything to do with money in my hotel,” Alex says. “It’s just the sort of area where the owner would blame me for wrong dealing, so he could cut my salary even more!” He’s wise, is Alex. His pathetic salary is already small enough at about £60 a month, on call all hours, criticised by a bad employer, no employment rights in this country. Hotel manager for two pounds a day.

This corruption comes down from the very top, of course, from the crooked president and those about him. A fine example to a poverty-wracked country. Probably the richest president in Africa, utterly corrupt through and through. He buys off or ‘removes’ any opposition. Is surrounded by a phalanx of sycophants. Unlike the late Mugabe, Museveni doesn’t aim to insult and belittle Western leaders and contains his corruption and political meddling generally within East Africa enabling him to hold on to power for, so far, a 34 miserable years.

The wind has been cool, gusting up from the vast lowlands below. There have been wispy clouds dancing and coiling above us. Precious and I watched their antics, fascinated.

One day it’ll be a guest house!

“So you say these clouds are at what distance?” she asks. I explained to her how my aeroplane flew above the clouds the other day, showed her the picture of sunset over North Africa that I took on my flight south in December. I suggest that these are low shreds of cloud, not rainclouds, just a bit of water vapour spinning through the blue, caused by the recent rains and the wet ground.

On the Sipi footpaths

“So is there a distance from the clouds above to heaven? What’s that distance?”

Precious has a very literal concept of heaven from the fake pastors of the millions of church businesses that abound. It’s where Jesus sits on the right hand of God, somewhere up above the blue stuff overhead.

Trying to explain the geography of what’s still known popularly as ‘the heavens’, isn’t easy… She expresses amazement that the sun is so far away, has never considered what stars might be, no idea of planets and space. Trying to explain that her ‘heaven’ is a metaphorical concept, rather than somewhere she will sit down at a big canteen table with the late crook, Daniel Arap Moi (corrupt ex president of Kenya, who just died amidst great noise), overseen by Jesus sitting on the right hand of God at the high table, is difficult. Alex laughs at her questions later, by the fire in the evening, home from his exploitation at the ‘smart’ hotel. He’s better educated, questioning, knows about the moon missions, has a concept of space and infinity and the distance to the stars, the fact that we are living on the only planet so far known to support life.

“So where is heaven?” Precious persists. Instead I try to explain how far away is that shining dot – I guess it’s Venus tonight, glaring from the western ‘heavens’. I try to explain the fact that the nearest star is four and a half light years away. But I rather spoil it by not remembering how long is a light year! Alex laughs. It’s companionable to be here with these two young people, alternately smart and aware and innocent and gullible. Nice mixtures. Fun conversations. My injured foot up on a plastic chair, the fire is dying away now, here where the bar will one day be at Rock Gardens, named after my house in Devon. It’s fun to enjoy the respect, admiration and love of these two, enough that they named their grubby cheerful boy after me. Life’s good when you go out and meet it. Maybe this trip WILL be as good as the others after all… Just different, I suppose. Restricted by the stupidity of playing rounders on a beach – when I’m really old enough to know better.

Or should be.

Keilah

DAY 45. MONDAY 10th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

A day or two ago, I burned my feet, sitting unthinking in the sun, unusually wearing flip-flops. The skin is very tender, stretched by the continued swelling of my right foot. Alex’s mother, Florence, who lives in the neighbouring compound, broke her ankle a year ago. She wanted to help my foot with local medicine. I’m always open to that, as she pulled leaves from a nearby hedge bindweed. She crushed the leaves in her hands and set to to rub the abrasive fibres over my foot as I sat in the shade of one of the conifers. How I screeched and leapt from my Chinese chair! It was very difficult to explain to her and Precious that I wasn’t objecting to her medicine but that the skin was burned – “Burned as if I’d put it in fire! Look, the tops of my ears are red too, and sore. And the top of my head!” The old lady wanted to help my foot. I wanted to protect the intensely sore skin from her rather rough ministrations. We compromised. I kept my hand on the sore areas and let her spread her green goo over the rest. It’s complicated to explain melanin and racial genetics to people who seldom see white skin!

Each afternoon, I have taken a good long rough walk in the village area. It’s attractive here. Very green and fertile, matoke trees making way-finding impossible for one not born to the village. We walk through people’s shambas on the winding red mud paths, climb the huge scattered rocks for views from the escarpment, meet neighbours and watch life, frequently in very basic earth and stick houses with zinc roofs, mud yards and few comforts. If any. It’s a life for most bordering on poverty, entirely dependent on the food they can grow for sustenance and small sales. When seasons fail, people suffer. It’s a simple equation: total dependence on the continuation of the usual cycles of nature, now severely threatened by climate change.

Shifra, a girl coming home from school

For four years now I have stood on the high edge of the escarpment gazing over the huge view westwards over a giant tract of Uganda. Right below wanders a red dust road through green matoke bananas, shambas and fields, separated by tall waving eucalyptus. Uncountable corrugated iron roofs punctuate the view, the newer ones winking as the sun lowers in the western sky. It’s a handsome scene and many’s the time I have said to Alex, or whoever my companion was – as I usually have a guide through the endless matoke trees and numerous shambas on the Sipi ridge – that one day I must go and take that weaving road. On Monday, Alex and I did just that.

Together on the Mosquito, we rode some way down the twisting tar road towards the great plains below. This is a road with appalling accident statistics. Driving here in Uganda is so bad and vehicles frequently dangerous and hugely overloaded. Matatus plunge over the edge on the steep bends, overbalanced trucks lose control of defective brakes, buses periodically leap from the turns and boda-bodas, insisting that there is economy in switching off their engines to coast the miles downhill, thus losing engine braking and lubrication, fly into the treetops below. The few road barriers have been long flattened – one truck took out a line of about thirty of the safety posts (years ago) before soaring into the void. It’s a one-hill population control facility, most drivers using brakes rather than gears to control – or not – their descents.

Some way down, using my gears and limiting my speed as boda-bodas freewheel past at silent speed, we turn off onto a dirt road amongst the ever-present habitations. For the whole 35 kilometre ride we will not leave the ribbon development of the last decades. “When I was small,” says Alex from the back, “there was forest here. Now look!” Alex is 34… I look. Hardly a shred of natural landscape is visible until the heights and precipices of the soaring cliffs above us. Even the high, apparently inaccessible ancient rock falls and soil slippages are now cultivated in small terraces of matoke bananas. Only the vertical red rock cliffs are in their natural state now. No one’s found any economic plunder from them yet.

Sharifa. Everyone has work to do. Especially if you’re female…

The red dust road is damaged from the rains, but it’s quite well used here and the ruts have been ironed out by countless boda-boda motorbikes. Few walk any more. Alex is greeted with laughter by acquaintances, amused to see the mzungu as his boda-boda rider. He’s popular and well known, born to a long-resident local family, first born of nine children, some of whom have married into these communities lower down the mountain; also from his volunteering work in the reproductive health unit of the region, spreading wisdom with his fellow ‘Youth Champions’ to attempt to alleviate some of the self-inflicted suffering in these uneducated communities. It seems an impossibly daunting exercise to me, but he is always optimistic. He’s delighted to find some of his fellow volunteers down here on this winding dust road. They are doing important work, but scratching at the edges of an overwhelming problem. He taps my shoulder to stop. A new house is being built by the road, a crude structure of handmade red bricks and hand-poured reinforced concrete beams. An expensive house for the region, but coarse and ugly to my eyes. One of his friends, Tom, a tall gangly fellow, unusually tall for Uganda, where the majority are short, is a carpenter. I know Tom, he’s visited us and we’ve walked and talked together, a quiet, rather dignified young man. He is delighted by our stop and we sit with his workmates and the new owner of the somewhat rudely built house. It’s like a million others – hideous, functional and far from the vernacular. This is, I suppose, the new vernacular. ‘Vernacular Ugly’. Not an improvement, with its blocky shape and iron roof. I know it’ll have nasty steel welded doors. It’ll probably never reach the stage of rendering the rough bricks, that are held together by thick, squishy black cement. The roof timbers that Tom is nailing with six inch nails, are rough cut, warping and bowing. They are fresh from the tree, cut by chain saws in a manner I watch with trepidation. Men wield three foot motor saws in flip-flops, no eye protection and thin mtumba wear office trousers and dirty tee shirts. “Many of them die early,” Alex told me as we walked through a plantation on a steep hillside the other evening, where villagers had gathered to carry the off-cuts for firewood. “The vibration of the saws day after day does something bad to their livers.” I guess that’s the ones who don’t die from gory mistakes or falling trees…

The workmates are taking their break when we arrive, delighted to invite us to sit with them for a time. After the customary, “How OLD are you?”, comes the inevitable second question: “How many children do you have?”

I used to answer with a simple, “Two.” It saved any further discussion and contented everyone, even though they thought it FAR too few. Now, I have understood that I can help Alex’s dedicated volunteer work to shock the audience with, “None!” and encourage a conversation – the conversation Alex and his colleagues are trying to spread to rural communities. About the impossibility of educating and raising ten, twelve, fifteen, howevermany, healthy children on the proceeds of a miserable stretch of Ugandan shamba that grows bananas and coffee. News of the extreme damage to the planet is unknown. Global warming is unknown. Climate change is just a wetter year than usual. God will make it all fine again soon. We’ll pray. The fact that we have gone far beyond the reach of prayers is unknown. Alex joins me, his Reproductive Health hat on now. The man with whom I am mainly conversing is coy about the size of his family. I talk of the stupidity and vanity of ‘wanting people to remember me’ by producing untold numbers of off-spring. “They’ll remember these men alright, but for the wrong reasons! For lack of self control and vanity. How many here remember even the name of their great grandfather? No one! So what’s the point? In 1950 there were about 5 million Ugandans; now there are 46 million; by 2050 it’s estimated there’ll be 90 million! Uganda stays the same size, with the dwindling resources!”

“Yes, but the Bible says…” Here we go! I point out that the Bible was written one thousand seven hundred years ago, when the world was very different and population, estimated at a mere 300 million, three thousand TIMES less people! Well within the capabilities of the planet to sustain. And no one had discovered fossil fuels, motor cars, aeroplanes, materialism, the ‘free market’. But my words fall on generally deaf ears. The Bible is THE authority. When it’s not the Koran if course.

Alex laughs as we ride away. “Huh, that man has ten children! Haha, how you told him! But it’s good you come. We will make changes. But here in these villages education is so low. That small boy, the one sitting by me, I asked him, ‘why aren’t you in school?’ He said because his uniform was dirty. The other man said the boy’s father had died and the mother is going from man to man around the district. The family is disturbed. It’s the parents. They don’t guide their children.” Here, a woman without a man has nothing – no land, no rights, no support. Alex is wise and thoughtful. Compassionate too, but clear eyed about the problems of the communities around him. A young man who paid much of his own education. A man who has determined to have only two children so he can raise them well in the challenges of life in this poverty-stricken, overpopulated land. A man with dreams. Ambitions not just for himself but for his community and country. A man who sees, but doesn’t follow the easy route of corruption and exploitation. A fair man. A young man I am proud to know, whom this week has stood higher in my estimation the better I know him. He’s inspiring.

We ride on, a beautiful landscape, the high red and brown cliffs far above to the left, fine views downwards to the right. There are children everywhere. Calling. Excited to see a mzungu here, where obviously few penetrate. Waving. Chasing the motorbike with its assorted passengers. They should be in school. A minority are in school uniform here. We never leave habitation. Not for 100 yards. Every scrap is cultivated to attempt to provide a living for this vast population.

Miles on, we ride through a small village centre, scruffy and sculpted in dry mud, like the ‘road’. Men hanging about, women doing the domestic and farming work. People stare. Many wave and greet. It’s rough going. Then a lovely view ahead, the cliffs forming a high sunbathed wall, a waterfall pouring in suspended motion from the dark green edge against the deep blue sky. “Stop here!” says Alex, pointing to the side of the red path. It’s his sister’s house, next in line to Alex.

Riding the red trails

Doreen is smart and educated. Much like Alex. She finished senior school and was destined for university but, “That boy, he stole her! I was annngry!” says their mother, coming next morning to thank me profusely for our visit to her daughter. Alex’s mother is a cheerful woman with a commanding nature. A bit older than me, I imagine, I wonder if, given the power, she’d have limited her family, instead of the nine children? It seems to me that she has a common sense beyond her probable education as a woman of her generation. If she’d had only two children, she’d have worked hard to educate them. She obviously brought them up on sound values. “I made them WORK, from a young age! I said, ‘do this, do that…’ so they would know how to work.”

“But now,” she says with concern, “no jobs in Uganda. Very big problem, no jobs…” Yes, the inevitable consequence of everyone having seven, ten, twenty children.

So Doreen, like Alex, could have soared higher in different circumstances, become leaders of note, not just role models in their limited communities. But she married a farmer and lives in a remote village. Her husband, Leonard, is charming and hard working. I like him instinctively – my only guide. His elderly mother – 83, she says, but looking younger – equally hard working, hacks at her steeply sloping fields with a mattock, clearing coffee to plant vegetables to restore the field’s nutrition. Leonard has cows and pigs, and several large areas of coffee, matoke banana and vegetables. I am surprised to find that coffee has a magnificent spread of delightfully sweet-smelling white blossoms.

Coffee, with a smell to match the beauty

We tour Leonard and his mother’s shambas, impressed by the order and productivity. But Leonard’s father married five wives and the land is divided and spread about the hillsides. Dangerous hillsides in heavy rains, the soaring cliffs above fragile and quickly draining. “I have land up there!” Leonard points high above, to where a terrace, tiny from down here, has been hacked from a rock slide far up the cliff face. “Those are my matoke trees. Next time you come, we can go there.” And maybe climb the steep steel ladders that access the villages on the plateau several hundred feet above the vertical cliffs.

 

Next time we visit, I should like to stay a night with that attractive couple, surrounded by openly friendly people, happy to welcome a mzungu into their village. It was a delightful couple of hours. Who wants a safari park, when he can have an African village? My presence causes such pleasure and happiness. Doreen phoned her mother in greatest glee that Alex had brought his mzungu to visit her. It’s a wonder for me to be able to provide that thrill. Just by proving my equality.

The road home was little more than footpaths. Now we had several kilos of green tomatoes to carry as well as ourselves. Hard work, two up on those tracks and trails. With only one brake on the steep hills, for my rear brake has failed again. But we persevered through magnificent scenery under the sunny African skies, happy with our journey, home to supper by a fire floodlit by the full moon.

I was planning to return to Kitale on Tuesday, but Precious has claimed HER day with her mzungu! Alex had his, now she is jealous, so I must go with her and the small children to the local town, Kapchorwa, a wild west place up the hills from Sipi. It’ll be no penance, with happy Precious!

“But we MUST have children! It’s our culture!” Almost every Ugandan exclaims. The ‘tradition’ that holds back so much of Africa. And so many of its thoughtful, educated young people, the Alexs and Doreens, as well as her father in law – with his five wives and countless children.

A gift of a new shirt.

DAYS 46/47. TUESDAY/ WEDNESDAY 11th/ 12th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

Each day, Precious and Alex persuade me to stay one day longer. Well, I have had to accept that this trip is different from all the others of the past seven years, slower, more circumscribed and concentrated on getting to know my various East African friends and families better. Narrower horizons, but none the worse for that.

Precious got her day out. As with so many Africans, time management is not her strong point. “We leave at one!” she told me, about 11.30. At 12.00 I suggested she started to get ready. She had to wash and prepare two toddlers as well as herself. So at 12.15 she started washing the breakfast things. It was 1.45 before we even left the house, on a long way round to the road where we hoped to get transport. We were walking, of course, at 3 year old speed – until I put Keilah on my shoulders to speed up the process. Not that it did, much. Precious isn’t the fastest walker either. By 2.30 we were at the roadside. No cars were available at that time, no matatus, only boda-bodas for the 16 kilometres up the mountain to Kapchorwa. I had refused to travel by boda-boda. In the end I had to accept that it was the only option we had.

After a serious lecture on the lack of concern for their own or their passengers’ safety, I climbed onto the very small motorbike. I doubt the rider had ever taken a slower journey, the 16 kilometres up to Kapchorwa! He crept along steadily, heeding my warnings for once and terrified maybe of the ire of the mzungu behind him. Little Keilah, almost three, rode between me and the rider. She’s comfortable with the mzungu grandfather now, and within minutes fell into deep sleep, cradled in my arms such that I had difficulty keeping us both balanced on the too small machine. She slept all the way to our destination, a guest house opened by a white man from the Netherlands. Head flopped on my forearm, she slept on over the badly deteriorated town dirt roads, waking only when I lifted her from the boda-boda. She’s a serious little girl, slow to smile, unlike her energetic, never resting little brother, my namesake, who plays with great independence around the compound all day long, filthy but concentrating and engaged all day. He seldom sleeps, but when he goes to bed at night he sleeps the night through quietly. I’ve become fond of them both. Engaging children.

Coffee and snacks was a family treat in the select surroundings of the mzungu’s green acre of a smart guest house. White people tend to like to stay at white owned guest houses – unlike me, who looks assiduously for African owned ones. I can stay in white guest house in Europe, why should I want to do so here? I observed that none of the white guests greeted us as they passed a few yards away. I find it natural to greet all Africans, as they do me. The four or five white guests appeared to have their own private but invisible ‘zones’, uncrossable barriers they’d instinctively set up. One of the things I love about Alex’s soon-to-be guest house is the way I am constantly greeted by passing locals.

Little JB shows more interest in football than his mzungu ‘grandfather’!

To return from Kapchorwa, now with Alex and Innocent as well, and weighty bags of foodstuffs from the market, we negotiate with a matatu and pile into the cramped minibus. If I believed in the efficacy of prayer, this is a time I might indulge – screaming along at speeds I wouldn’t attempt even in a well maintained vehicle, let alone a derelict jalopy with no rear suspension and in all likelihood, bald tyres. I’m not sorry we are alighting at Sipi, before this mad driver careers down the twisting, dangerous hill towards Mbale below. We’re packed in, my knees to my chest, nowhere to put my legs and very little cushion left to the rear seat that I share with Precious, Keilah, Jonathan and all our shopping, a branch of green matoke bananas crushing through the back of the seat.

I am shocked to find that Alex’s cheating, miserable boss, the owner of the hotel who exploits his staff on the understanding that with so much unemployment, they are expendable and easily replaced – perhaps the worst, most mean-spirited management style imaginable, has still not paid his employees for January. It’s February 12th and most people here in Uganda live from hand to mouth. He is responsible for numerous poorly paid workers. School started over a week ago but few of the employees have the money to pay fees, so children are excluded while they wait on the pleasure of the disrespectful owner. I found this out, not because Alex or Precious informed me or asked for help, but in conversation about Keilah being ready to start at school. “We have no money for the fees, the books, the uniform, the pencils…” admitted Precious unwillingly. “Until Alex is paid, we have been living on the money you gave me when you left to go to Karamajong…” I gave Precious £10 when I left, knowing I’d be returning and would leave more when I go back to Kitale. “Why don’t you ask?” But Precious is too shy. “Oooh, Jonat’an, we cannot ask for everything from you!”

How hard life is for honest Ugandans with education. When I paid Keilah’s first term school fees (£40) and transport money to and from Kapchorwa (another £40), Precious burst into tears. These young people have so little support. It’s so sad to witness the realities of life in an African country.

Alex and his favourite aunt, Khalifa and some grandchildren

Before I left, Alex was determined to set up the new signboard for Rock Gardens on the lane that passes his property. As the sun set, he hacked a couple of holes and called Innocent to bring out the newly painted sign that advertises his dreams. The village came to watch, idly gathering to see this new development. It’s sad, though, that so much jealousy exists in these rural communities. They assume that Alex is getting preferential treatment from ‘sponsors’ and are envious.

Precious with the first public exposure of their dreams

Villagers gather to gawp 

With Precious or Alex I wander through the matoke amongst local compounds, greeted by all. For many I am probably the first mzungu with whom they have shaken hands, which for them is a big excitement. Why, I wonder, when we are all the same apart from a microscopically thin layer of outside covering? My whiteness just marks me out as somewhat exotic in the rural shambas of the sub-villages of Sipi. There are white people to be seen in the Sipi trading centre at the top of the winding hill, but they tend to be aloof from the locals, specimens to be viewed at a distance. “Thank you to see me, thank you to see me!” repeated one elderly woman, pulling forward traditional folding wooden chairs for us.

One old lady of 102, lives in her basic mud walled home, a place dark with woodsmoke stains and bereft of comfort beyond a couple of old low stools. She was in the process of rolling a cigarette in what looked like a page torn from an exercise book. “She smokes this,” said Alex, fingering a tobacco plant outside her door. Well, it hasn’t done her much harm. She chattered with Alex, this oldest inhabitant of the area. “She is saying I should bring her sugar,” laughed Alex. Many of the old ladies, if they make it to old age, are still hard working women. Alex’s favourite aunt, Khalifa, made us tin mugs of black tea in her compound, a talkative woman, maybe about 80, first born of Alex’s father’s generation. She lives alone in her brown mud houses, her sons and daughters all living in neighbouring compounds. The other day she came to Alex’s place to fetch about 20 kilos of thick, clayey building earth that she would use to patch the plaster of her house. Rather bent over, with a long stick in one hand, she swung the bag onto her back and shuffled home.

I was shocked to watch the clouds gather to the north east (the way I have to go tomorrow) and later for steady rain to fall yet again. This safari has been impossibly marked by rain and mud. It’s chilly enough for a blanket round my shoulders by the campfire – tonight under the shelter of the one-day-to-be bar. Now, as I head for bed, storms are rolling around again.

Keilah celebrates the news of going to school with pen and notebooks

DAY 48. THURSDAY 13th FEBRUARY 2020. KITALE. KENYA

On Thursday, after a week, at last made I my goodbyes to my Uganda family and set off back to ‘base’ in Kitale. The morning was cool, the skies filled with clouds, and thunder had rumbled below Sipi, down on the lower plains (where I had aborted my exploration of the northern tribes last week), through last evening. I was nervous of the road ahead, as I decided to ride my favourite East African road back through the remote border post at Suam River. One day there’ll be a tarred road here, but for now the new tarmac has reached all of three kilometres from Kapchorwa – on the 75 kilometre journey to the border. I’ll be able to enjoy the rigours and rewards of this beautiful, remote road for some time longer.

Rain clouds hung about the slopes of high Mount Elgon as I travelled eastwards, watching apprehensively, riding the earth surfaces. It doesn’t take much rain to make them very slippery on two wheels. But the rain held off, just about, only some drizzle making a few patches dicey amongst the road building works. All was going reasonably well, with a bit of caution.

I reached the forest area. In past times this has always provided the most challenging ride on this 125 kilometre journey back to Kitale. It’s a region with some steep hills and beaten through thick red dust that sits on top of very uneven rock. It’s the highest part of the trail, at 2555 metres (8300-odd feet), and has often been hard going here. I’ve struggled up and down one particularly bad hill a few times. But they were nothing like today! About a kilometre and a half of disgusting red clay, thick and greasy. There’s a steep hill down to an old, narrow colonial era bridge over a roaring mountain river, and an even steeper ascent to the top of the route. It’s like a ski run (and remember, I have no rear brake right now!). Boda-bodas slipped and slid and a car was slithering and revving, a crowd trying to heave it upwards. I skied downwards in low gear. The deep mud filled my knobbly tyre tread within yards, by boots grew in size. A third of the way down, still upright, my engine stalled from the build up of claggy mud that had locked my rear wheel! It took minutes to push and winkle the mud from my frame. It’s an old chain, from which Sam, the mechanic in desert Marabit, last year removed a couple of links to make adjustment easier. That’s fine under normal conditions, but it brings the wheel an inch nearer to the frame – perfect to make a thick, gooey, mud pie, sticky enough to lock the engine! 100 metres downward and it happened again. Again I mined the clay from my wheel. I splashed through deep brown puddles on the bridge and stopped wearily.

Mud to stall an engine

A policeman on a small trail bike laughed to see me. “Where to?” I told him Kitale as we laughed about the terrible conditions. Happily, he assured me that after another few hundred metres I would have no trouble all the way to the border. “The road is dry; there’s been no rain.” I struggled up the opposite hill, weaving amongst flailing boda-bodas, a marooned car and sliding people with bags and baggage. At the top lorries waited for their attempt. Maybe gravity would help them down to the river, but how they would all ascend the other slope I decided not to wait to see!

The challenge

Mud!

The challenge overcome, for the Mosquito. Trucks wait their turn to ski down.

The rest of the ‘road’ was indeed dry and presented no more challenged than those to which I am used – rocky trails and a million or two bumps and potholes. The views make up for much of the hammering ride. It’s one of the most glorious bits of this part of the world. I just love it and ride along with what’s probably best described as a foolish grin of pleasure at the experience. People call and greet, children are excited. It’s just wonderful.

In the crude village of Tulel, I stop for chai and a rest, the sinecure of all eyes as soon as I take off my helmet and take a small wooden stool in the shade of a rusty roofed mud shack, grandly called the ‘Star Hotel’. The tea is hot, milky and sweet – and reviving. Hundreds gather to watch and talk with the white man. Not many of us stop in Tulel. I sip at my scalding enamel mug of tea as everyone one discusses the ‘mzee’ (elder) who has stopped in their midst and appears to them too old for all this. Two men who later lead our discussion are fifty and frankly look older than me. Gangly boys and girls flow from the local school, bright yellow shirts and blue shorts and skirts. An ancient holey tarp lies on the dusty ground on which pale cream coffee beans are drying. Coffee is almost white until it’s roasted. A small naked boy baby sits amidst the beans, perhaps adding his flavouring to the eventual brew. A line of idle men sit on a plank bench opposite me, debating my details. Green mountain slopes back them, glinting like a disco ball with zinc roofed habitations. The women, of course, are working, most of them with a baby on their back or crawling about nearby. There are children everywhere – this country with a median age of 15.8 years, beaten only by Mali at 15.4. (World median age is 30.4. UK, 40.5. Thank you Mr Wikipedia!).

The ‘Star Hotel’ at Tulel

After a time, one man ventures forth to talk with the mzee mzungu. I know the questions before they are uttered: “Where from? Where to? How old are you? How many children? What religion?” Usually followed by, “What team?”

This time I borrow my two children (thank you Sam and Alice!) and fake my protestant beliefs. It’s just TOO much to go into here otherwise. But we start a lively discussion – I’ll be here for an hour – about self-inflicted poverty, the education of children, the state of the planet (from my point of view, of course. Theirs is governed by God and the Bible), the rights of women (widespread disbelief at the very concept) and the relevance of the Bible and Koran to today’s situation (“But it’s the word of God!”). “Do my children look after me now I am old?” No! They are independent! That’s why I educated them! “Why don’t you help us? You are rich, you mzungus…” I tell them how much my mug of tea would cost in England. They are silenced in horror for a moment. I tell them the price of my boots. Shock!

These are conversations I have time and again, especially in Uganda with its deep rooted cultural belief that they must have more children. It turns out that the two fifty year old leaders of our crowded discussion – there are about thirty people crowded in front of me now (I feel not a jot of apprehension or threat, only human warmth, even if what I’m telling them isn’t really hitting home much) – the two men have eight and ten children. A woman trader, sitting nearby, slightly outside the discussion group – she’s a woman, after all – smiles and chuckles at my opinions of uncontrolled Ugandan men and the need for women to take over the reins. She’s right there with me, but she hasn’t the right to express her opinion if the mad mzungu (who’s only got two children anyway) isn’t there to encourage her laughter.

“Oh, but for us, woman is below children!” says one of the old-looking 50 year old men.

“Slightly above donkeys, then?” I quip. Everyone laughs happily. Even the women. It’s hopeless!

After an amusing hour, I gather my riding clothes, pay my 8 pence for the mug of tea, giving the cheerful trader the remainder of my change, to the laughter of the men, and her delight. I’ve tipped her 6p! “I’m leaving the country, so you should have my coins!”

No doubt they’ll discuss the stupidity of white men for a while after I leave. But I do little to change perceptions that they gather from the media, peddling the wealth and luxury of the West. And let’s face it, I AM the one who rides through their lives with all this material wealth – such that I can tip 6 pence to a tea trader in her ‘hotel’ – owned by a man, I have no doubt at all. Women own nothing here in Uganda, except the work.

My Mosquito and I bounce through endless small rural villages and past countless semi-vertical shambas. The sun’s out now – more the African landscapes I have come to know and love. Without sun the smile fades from Africa’s face.

Now I am looking down far, far to the northwest, across those vast blue plains, dotted with dormant volcanic pimples – the area of Karamajong that I set out to see last week, and failed.

Even now I can feel my foot swelling inside my big, supportive bike boot. It’s getting a lot of physiotherapy… The hospital told me to stand on a step and raise and lower my weight on the toes. It’s pretty much what I have to do, standing on the foot-pegs on my little bike, dancing this way and that over the roughest of roads, down virtual staircases of rock and dust, correcting and balancing, weaving and dodging. There’s a reason for my foolish grin! I’m having fun.

So, home to my East Africa base and warm welcomes again. Little Maria’s ‘Uncle Jon’an’ and Adelight’s Scrabble opponent has come home for a day or two to think about the next short safaris. It’s proving a different sort of journey this year, but I am consolidating friendships and families, and that’s a very African way of looking at life. A way that I am adopting more and more as the years pass.

Alex, on the right, and tall Tom and children everywhere, fascinated by a mzungu

Family

EAST AFRICA 2020 – FIVE

I’VE BEEN AWAY FROM INTERNET CONNECTION FOR TEN DAYS OR MORE, SO THERE WILL BE TWO JOURNALS TO CATCH UP ON! Next one tomorrow…

My Ugandan family

DAY 37. SUNDAY 2nd FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

My memory of East Africa this year will be of red mud and warm welcomes. An awkward combination for a biker on safari. I’ve ridden back to Sipi to joyous excitement from my Uganda family. “Precious wasn’t able to sleep when she heard,” laughs Alex happily as we sit by a fire of old timber. “She was afraid for your ride in the mud! She thought it would be HARD!” Precious seems to find my age a matter for concern. I suppose that so few Ugandans even reach 70 that her elderly mzungu is a bit of a wonder. She fell on her knees to thank me and god in about equal measure and tell me that no Ugandan parent ever treats their children as I treat her and her family. Not surprising if you’ve seven, or nine, or fifteen, or twenty children in this country of such shocking statistics: 50% under the age of 15, the fastest growing population in the world, the ‘youngest’ country in the world, children everywhere I look. Some of this generous continent’s friendliest people heading towards a total planetary ecological disaster. Everyone’s ambition? More children (a gift from god) and more cattle (status). Mention any worry about the planet and the common answer is, “We’ll pray…” Hmmm.

With all the rain and slippery mud around, and more rain forecast, it was prudent to take the long way to Sipi, not the rough track through Suam border about which Precious was worrying, although it’s less than two thirds the distance. I knew there’d be mud and difficulties that way. The other route takes me on tar roads round three sides of Mount Elgon. About twelve o’clock back to nine o’clock on the map, instead of twelve to nine anti-clockwise. I set off south from Kitale, turning off the main road onto a tarred short cut that takes me past Adelight’s mother’s house, an hour from Kitale, where I was commissioned to deliver a couple of kilos of milk powder to Adelight’s junior brother, Tito, waiting for me at the roadside. That done, I carried on towards the Uganda border, a huge, tedious crossing that carries all the commercial traffic from the ports of Kenya up to the interior of the continent, Uganda and Rwanda and even Congo.

I rolled along, the rain clouds always just far enough away that I kept largely dry. I bowled through rural Chwele, enjoying a tar road. Soon I expected to turn right at a major junction onto the main east-west highway before riding west to the border. Imagine then my surprise to approach a broken gate across the road and a sign, ‘stop for transit’. I had reached Lwakhakha, a remote border crossing I once used a few years ago, after a troublesome journey on footpaths so remote that I couldn’t believe I was on an international route! Now the road has been tarred all the way and somewhere I had taken a wrong turn. I was happy to save myself a number of miles and the big, tediously busy border post. But I remember this border for difficult bureaucracy – probably in search of bribes. So, after a long process, I was told that the ‘law’ allowed me only 14 days in Uganda with my motorbike. I’ve travelled in and out of the country on several occasions and every time been granted 30 days. Finally, I had to accept that I have fourteen days for my tour of the north. Actually, I didn’t want much more – and wasn’t paying a bribe on principle.

The addition of mud and a layer of dried streaky stains to everything along the road doesn’t do much for the attractiveness of the rural villages through which I pass. The crude structures that form most of the habitations en route aren’t beautiful on a sunny day. They’re particularly gloomy and repulsive in present conditions. Half finished, with construction stopping as soon as the building is useable, all decoration then halted, they are rough and ugly. And in this astonishingly populous country, they line most of the main roads. Now in Sipi, red mud is everywhere – on the slippery pathways and tracks, around all the houses, trodden across the floor of ‘Jonathan’s House’ – the original round room of Alex’s Rock Gardens guest house – and ingrained on all the people. Delightful Precious’s once-white skirt, as I write this morning, is patchy brown and stained to grubbiness. She’s two mud-covered toddlers clambering over her all day long. The two children are filthy, like every one of their compatriots just now. It’s a filthy life in Africa when it rains! It’s an absolute wonder that Precious gets the sheets so sparklingly white that they could be laid on a bed in the best Kampala international hotel! How she’s done that I have no idea.

Precious has a great skill in decorating the simple rooms

From the border on the Ugandan side, the road will be some time before completion. I had to struggle and slip through five kilometres of thick, greasy mud of the road building project before finding packed earth and eventually tar again, to bring me to the hectic regional town of Mbale, a most unappealing place with more boda-boda motorbikes swarming the streets like ants than any other town in Africa, except perhaps the crazy, congested capital, Kampala – a scene that must be seen to be believed. And once seen, is best forgotten and avoided if possible! Today, Sunday, is the last day of the school holidays and all of Uganda appeared to be shopping in Mbale. The town was packed with pedestrians and wayward boda-bodas, weaving through broken streets, competing with badly driven cars. Uganda has arguably the worst drivers in Africa. And as for boda-bodas, they are dangerous in the extreme, competing for business – an overload of three passengers here and vast load there – on their 100cc Chinese motorbikes. No one has any training or road sense. Many die. I must ride with eyes like a hawk. Sadly, few others of my two wheeled friends do the same. I watched an accident happen as I rode through Mbale, actually anticipating the collision. Two riders rode along looking at the back of the car close in front of them. As I (who looks ahead) had the thought, ‘that car in front will stop in about 15 seconds’, and held back, the driver stopped and both motorbikes piled into the back of it, tumbled in a heap in the road, with the rear decorative bumper of the car hanging drunkenly. I rode around the whole mess, watching with wry amusement as the well-dressed Haji moslem driver pulled over to begin what I expect was a long harangue with two shamefaced boda-boda riders, now picking themselves up from the road as hundreds more weaved around the heap! I was happy to leave Mbale behind, as I’ve always been when using that road.

The temperature drops several degrees as I ride up the escarpment towards Sipi, several hundred metres above the valley. It’s a steep, winding climb onto the wooded hills, bananas and coffee everywhere, tall eucalyptus towering above the rocky precipices. The final trail to Rock Gardens is the worst track of all, heavy sticky clay on which to slither the final kilometre, my tyre tread filling to provide a greasy slick.

Effervescent Precious

The last two hundred yards, and Precious has been listening for the engine. She comes running, arms waving, exclamations rushing, to hug me as I reach the slowly progressing resort. Some day, these two delightful, hard working, diligent young people will be independent. Alex dreams of his new hotel. If anyone can achieve their dreams, it will be these two. It won’t take much, that’s the saddest thing. Telling Alex of the (surprise) corporation tax bill I just paid (I’d forgotten to pay the last two years, my accountant emailed me to tell me! Huh!), he exclaimed, “Just think what that money could do here!” It could have set up this young family for life, a life independent of crooked, exploitative employers, a chance to build their dreams into reality and become a charming place to stay for Ugandans and visitors alike. I’d so much rather my tax pounds supported people with dreams than completely useless nuclear submarines that can never be used, pointless Brexit negotiations and high speed trains that’ll cut 20 minutes off over-paid executives’ travel time to Birmingham. Sadly, no one has the foresight to include my choice in my corporation tax payments!

Since we were all here three weeks ago, Alex has painted the walls of the rooms, planted more shrubs and is collecting stones to lay on the paths around the property. He’s employing some of the local boys. They need money to buy schoolbooks, so he’s paying them 5 pence a bucket for stones collected around the fields! A steady flow of small boys arrives as we greet and chatter, plastic containers on their heads, and rattle the stones onto the growing pile.

But there’s mud everywhere. It’s horrid, greasy mud. If I could have paid my tax to this business as a charitable gift, we could go and purchase doormats, pebbles for pathways and so many more useful items towards their eventual independence! Alex shows me the first signboard he’s had painted, awaiting the resources to declare his guest house and restaurant and bar open. It’s well painted by ‘artist Jonah’, it says in one corner. ‘Welcome to Rock Gardens. Enter as a guest, leave as a friend’. It has a picture of one of the round houses, a silhouette of Mount Elgon superimposed, and a depiction of a rider on a motorbike across Mount Elgon. That’s me! I joke that it should also read: ‘enter thin, leave fat’, anticipating Precious’s overestimation of my appetite, so much smaller than hers.

I do love these two young folk. What a happy chances I have to meet such delightful, honest, inspiring youngsters across the world. We sit until midnight beside a fire – slow to get going with all the wet wood around – and talk after dinner. I have my two bottles of beer, Alex and Precious make copious amounts of tea. Little Keilah, about three and no longer terrified of her mzungu granddad, falls asleep on her feet, her torso laid across the seat of one of the ubiquitous Chinese plastic chairs. Jonathan Junior, already nicknamed JB, scavenges in the mud and muck around our feet by the firelight, apparently eating dust from a dropped spoon.

Jonathan (‘JB’) a filthy, very engaging child!

Young Innocent, a willing lad Alex has drafted in to help about the house while he is exploited by his unpleasant employer (who hasn’t paid any wages this month and is trying to persuade Alex to lay off staff, an instruction he is resisting), Innocent plays some game on his phone, the blue light reflecting off his young shiny face. We are peaceful and content – even if I’m a bit tired and would really rather be in bed by now. But Precious and Alex want to maximise their time with ‘Alex’s rich mzungu’, his ironic name that came from his jealous cousins’ and ex-business partners’ (except they weren’t partners…) suspicion that I was staying ‘months’ in their resort while he took my money! The rumour was spread by envious relatives, who resent someone with determination and dreams. Alex is well off out of that business deal. He’ll make out on his own, although there will be many challenges on the way. He knows that and is cheerfully confident. “Oh, we’ll get customers! Already I have people from Kampala asking when I will be ready. You see, they come and like Rock Gardens, but they want showers and toilets.” It’s only the ‘rich mzungu’ who prefers the good company and is willing to accept a wash down in a bucket and is content with a hole in the floor!

The first two round rooms of the guest house

DAY 38. MONDAY 3rd FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

Rain, rain, rain! What a ‘dry’ season this is. Miserable, lashing rain, mud, mud, mud. It’s very unattractive. The heavy undergrowth drips, the light is grey, brown spreads everywhere.

A calm, damp, grey morning at home with my charming Ugandan family, then, just as Precious, who has such a prodigious appetite, announced that she had made another meal, Alex saved me by suggesting a walk to get appetite ourselves. So we set off for rather a long walk. Perhaps a somewhat foolhardy one, in the circumstances – that is the family elder with a weak and damaged ankle…

We walked, I guess, some 9 or 10 kilometres on the roughest, mountainous ground. That might have been OK, had the mountainous ground not been as slippery as ice and my shoes with tread that is fine on dry ground but like slicks on Sipi’s escarpment footpaths and wet grass. Tonight my ankle is stressed, but – kill or cure – taking the strain. But now, as I sit by the cooking fire in what will one day be Rock Garden’s bar, but is now a damp, muddy corner beneath the tin roof of the upper level restaurant, equally unfinished, I have that ingrained sense of dampness that comes from constant, heavy rain. Rain through which I stumbled and slipped for some hours. My clothes are filled with mud stains and generally wet, my mood only made positive by the company around me as Precious and Innocent and Alex prepare our supper. I’m helped by a bottle of beer…

DAY 39. TUESDAY 4th FEBRUARY 2019. MOROTO, UGANDA

I thought I had learned: never ask a non-driver for directions or the condition of the road. “Oh, it’s a good road! Good murram until Nakapiripirit, then a fine highway. Tar! No, it’ll be no problem. You’ll be in Moroto in three hours!”

Yeah… ‘Good road’… Huh.

“Oh, yes, it’s a GOOD road!”

A couple of times today I doubted my sanity. Why the ****** was I doing this? What was I proving? To whom? Why, anyway? Well, of course the only answer is to myself, proving I could do it, despite my anxiety. It’s all about challenging myself and overcoming. How utterly stupid! But, you see, I sit here hours later, as the sun sets, with a Nile Special before me, and I think to myself, ‘I did it’. I battered down my fear of breakdown (ever-present as I ride); I managed to ride a horribly difficult trail (that was supposed to be such a ‘good road’), and I overcame my fear of the remote road and the unknown ahead. I could have faced worse in front, after all; it might lead to even more difficulties.

What I had to deal with was challenge enough. Two of the worst stretches of deep, slippery, cloying mud I have ridden through in many years. It might have been just about a passable road without the recent ceaseless rain. And of course, when I hit the two mud baths, there were plenty of helpers and watchers. Stuck cars and trucks wallowing in deep mud is a big attraction out in the remote bush – that is never so remote in an over populated country like Uganda that there aren’t people hidden in their stick, earth and thatch houses, camouflaged in the landscape. People with nothing better to do than sit and watch and hope for a few shillings for pushing a mzungu through deep mud and filth. And the old ‘mzee’ can still do it! Even with a dicky leg. Mind you, I bet I’m asleep by 8.30 tonight! I am utterly and totally exhausted.

So what was it all in aid of? I’ve decided to investigate a bit of northern Uganda, the Karamajong area that reaches up to the Sudanese border. It’s a region long aloof from the rest of Uganda, frequently troubled in the past and always kept remote from the more cosmopolitan areas of the south of the country. It’s ‘here be dragons’ country. Has it’s own lifestyle and a number of indigenous tribes; cattle herders, who not so long ago were so remote that they even went naked. Tribal Africa. Far from ‘civilisation’. Aggressive by reputation. ‘Different’. Now that’s changed of course. I find, on arrival at Moroto, that there’s now a sweeping tarmac road all the way south to Kampala! Why didn’t you come via Soroti?” I am asked, now I’m here – by Nakapiripirit. “Oh! That road is terrrrible!” Yeah, I know. Now.

I didn’t come by Soroti because I didn’t bloody well know! And because I’d probably have challenged myself if I had…

I slept like a log in Jonathan’s House in Alex’s Rock Gardens (named after Rock Cottage, Harberton) and enjoyed a relaxed breakfast amongst my family. Little Keilah, now about three, who was terrified of the white man only a year ago, is now familiar and fascinated, stroking the hairs on my arm and playing with my pink fingers. Little Jonathan, the junior ‘JB’, is a cheerful, wilful child of 14 months. They are dressed in filthy rags, not through poverty or lack of care, but because they live and play in red mud, dust and stones. It’s a squalid but very natural African childhood. I doubt they’ll ever indulge allergies or become addicted to ‘devices’.

Family photo duty done, I was on the (slippery) road from their gardens about 11. I’d watched the clouds burning off the vast valley below, where we can gaze 100 miles west over Uganda. I knew it’d be warmer down at the lower altitudes. Sipi sits in cool air at 1800 metres, refreshing when I come in a normal dry season – but chilly in this worrying year.

Soon I was on the limitless plain that makes up much of this country. At the foot of the mountains, I turned right onto the murram road to the far north. Murram is merely rock, gravel and dust. In good conditions – which these weren’t – I can ride along at 50 miles an hour. After the endless heavy rains, I was lucky to make 30mph amongst slippery ruts and muddy puddles. But all was going well. In Uganda you seldom leave behind people and ribbon villages, muddy trading centres and idle men. There are children everywhere I look. This week they should be in school, but many fall through the educational system cracks. They’re children of huge poor families and must tend the family cattle, their wealth. School and education is a luxury that few afford or respect out here. Many don’t even see the use of it. Why do you need education when generations have herded their cattle without it? And who’s to check? We’re a long way from inspectors out here. This is remote Uganda and it obeys different rules. Or makes its own.

With care, the ‘road’ was bearable. A few big mud lakes and a lot of slippery filth, but nothing formidable. After an ugly, mud bathed, spreadeagled village, I rode into the Pian-Upe Wildlife Reserve. The track deteriorated. The mud became more frequent. I was crossing a large, bush-covered plain, steep mountains to my right, clouds huddling amongst the rocky peaks. I passed the camp headquarters. Waved at a pointless ‘revenue barrier’ as I passed. Saw a crowd gathered a few hundred yards in front. Lorries blocking the track. Villagers rubbernecking a car that was slithering and struggling, its near side buried nearly roof high in a huge embankment of red, slimy mud, the bonnet blathered in red mud, the driver looking a bit wildly desperate, at an extreme angle as mud arced over his once-white vehicle. It seemed to me that he’d be there for some time yet, a line of ancient trucks impatient for their attempts. I guessed that on my piki-piki I might bypass the sorry mess on the narrow top of the field embankment. I back-tracked, watched by an idle crowd, to a place where I could bounce through the ditch of filth that lined the mud bath and teetered my way, with great concentration, past the obstacle. But now I had to get back to the muddy trail, through a deep ditch of red water and mud. I chose my place, slithered into the mire and promptly fell sideways into the ditch. I spent some minutes tonight washing red mud from my underpants! With the help of a few lads, and with my boots deep in slime, I was able to extricate myself from the mess and regain the mud slick of the ‘road’ – the ‘Oh, yes, Good Road’!

I was congratulating myself on getting through the obstacle, and fist-bump greeting a young man who’d helped to get me upright, when, with a big smile, he said, “Bad road ahead! Same like this!”

Half a mile further on, there was indeed an even worse mud hole. Another 100 yards of deep filth. But I’m an overland biker in Africa, aren’t I? Even if I’m a 70 year old fool too!

There was an occasion in the wet season in Tanzania when perhaps I was more filthy. I was brown just about all over that time. This time I was just bemired in red muck by the time I got through the second obstacle, with the help of a crowd of cheerful boys, pushing and correcting my sliding and slipping. They were rewarded with £1 or so of change from my pocket. Without them, I’d probably have drowned in mud!

Later, at a junction in the red mud road, I stopped to ask my way of a calm fellow with a ready smile. “Yes, keep going. You will find many corners but it will be stony and you will come to a FINE highway in Nakapiripirit!” Music to my ears by then, for I was becoming weary. So tired that ten minutes later I tumbled off the Mosquito on a stony hill and needed the help of a boda-boda passenger to lift my bike from the ditch. Sometimes, being a septuagenarian with an injured leg makes life a trifle more complex!

Well, after 60 of the most testing miles I have ridden for a year or two, I DID emerge onto a fine tar highway. Rather boring, actually. The second half of my 200 kilometre day was on a very lonely, sweeping tar road across a huge landscape, gazing down to limitless Ugandan bush country to a far distant horizon, dotted with old volcano cones. A storm threatened, off to my left, but only a few warning drops disturbed my ride, as I watched anxiously the slashes of torrenting rain away to the west.

I reached Moroto about five or six HARD hours after leaving the family in Sipi. (“Oh, you’ll be in Moroto in three hours on your piki-piki!”). Thankfully, for I was now almost beyond rational thought, I had the recommendation of Wanda and Jorg to a hotel for the night, and arrived half-expected. I’ve a decent room in the quiet compound for less than £12, including breakfast. Now, after two Nile Specials and supper of chicken, chips and local greens, at 19.55, I’m heading for bed. A good day – now it’s ended.

And I proved – pathetically to myself – that I could do it, and there’s life in the old dog yet.

I had to send my pannier bags for repair. I’d caught one of them on part of a lorry as I struggled and slid to pass in the mud. No driver has the patience to wait at a sensible distance, they crowd together, one behind the other, blocking what little of the track is passable to anyone who may just be able to come the other way. Matthew, the guest house assistant, took the bags on a boda-boda back to town, where a cobbler stitched them up efficiently. It’s possible to repair anything in Africa – all those things we’d be told were beyond repair and we must buy new in our throw away culture. Those bags have been stitched back together in various places. It’s hard work for canvas bags, being trundled across the depredations of the African landscape. A couple of pounds, including transport and a tip to Matthew, extends their life again.

DAY 40. WEDNESDAY 5th FEBRUARY 2019. SOROTI, UGANDA

I’ve failed. The legendary JB obstinacy has been beaten – by a combination of climate change and rounders, rounders being the game I was playing on the beach when I tore my Achille’s tendon back in September. Climate change is a little more serious, of course, but my weak ankle is a very personal trial. I feel rather a deep sense of failure.

A problem of long, lone journeys – especially over boring, flat bush lands, is that there’s a tendency to fill the time with self-analysis, and to flagellate myself with criticism of weakness, increasing age, timidity and lack of stamina. Maybe I AM too old to be acting as I do? Maybe it’s just my injured leg, swollen by evening from sitting for hours on the bike, telling me to slow down?

By about one o’clock the African sun was completely veiled by cloud. Not those usual puffy white handkerchiefs drifting across the infinite blue dome of the equatorial sky, but grey-lined blankets that presage rain. I had by now turned off the new highway, a few miles from Moroto, onto the long piste to the north. I’d already, in the light of yesterday’s efforts, decided to limit my ride to reach only Kotido, little over 100 kilometres. But as I left the main tarred highway, I was setting off onto a circuit of gravel and earth roads that would take me over 650 kilometres of hard, rain deteriorated tracks. That’s 400 long miles. On my own. With probable slippery mud for parts of it. About twenty minutes into that journey, that would take me perhaps five days or more, the clouds ahead were thickening and boiling high into storm heads. I could see sharp showers to left and right. It was only a matter of time before left and right became ‘here’. I stopped. The piste – it really wasn’t a ‘road’ – was narrow and already broken, two deep ruts with a hard central ridge and muddy dips to either side. A false move, loss of concentration on my hours’ long journeys and I’d be in difficulties. It was very remote and would become far more so. I was on my own. Entirely alone. Yesterday, when I fell off the bike on a stony hill, I had difficulty in getting a footing with my damaged ankle, then got stuck with the weight of the bike on my leg – the bad one of course. I realised that my strength in that leg is compromised. In 650 kilometres of trails like this, I was pretty well bound to tumble off here and there if I hadn’t the strength to react rapidly.

It’s not as if I had to get across this region to get somewhere. I was here only from curiosity, to go and see the Karamajong people, a different tribal life, the old life of Africa, so seldom seen any more. A place where independent people follow their own traditions – as much as anyone with a mobile phone constantly in hand can be said to be following their own traditions, not those of the material world that has engulfed them so rapidly. I was riding merely to see what was there. 650 kilometres of potential risk – with the rewards of overcoming my own fears, of perhaps finding some interest amongst the peoples, seeing the lands of the remote north. With the risk of possible accidents that would be more severe with one 70 year old leg (the other being about 40!) that is so vulnerable. All this to extend the lines on my African maps.

Beaten, I turned round.

I had the satisfaction of watching these clouds in my mirrors. I’d made the right decision…

I rode back towards the new highway, back to more cosmopolitan Uganda. Away from rain – as I thought, only to ride through various light showers on my long, boring slog south to Soroti.

Soroti is a noisy, incredibly noisy, scruffy, busy regional town that I associate with perhaps one of the hottest nights of my East African safaris. I stayed here three years ago and sweated the night away on top of the bed. Tonight I am going to bed beneath a blanket. (It didn’t last, as I had to close the window to keep out the noise and sweated in a humid room).

In the north, as far as I went, which was just touching the edges of the tribal lands I wanted to see, I felt a distance and aloofness from the people I passed. There wasn’t the usual Ugandan welcome and waves. Children watched me without the usual passion, unresponsive. A reserve I don’t associate with this extremely friendly country. Approaching Soroti, the greetings began again. The people of the north have followed their own stars for long enough, cut off from the rest of the country, to have a self-determined spirit and insularity. Young women wear flared, pleated, above-the-knee-length skirts; the men barelegged, with a cloth tied about their waists or across their shoulders; a bizarre psychedelic Trilby hat with a long feather poking from the back, or slightly risible tall striped, knitted, flat-topped tubes, about six inches high, perched on the crown of their heads, with a narrow upturned brim. Odd thing, fashion. All men and boys carry a herding stick and most now, amongst these people who eschewed clothing nor so long ago, wear Uganda or Premiere League football strip shirts, ubiquitous phone company tee shirts or mtumba wear – Western charity rejects. Most clamp a mobile phone in that palm clutch that will probably become a genetic modification in future generations. Chances are, I wasn’t going to witness much remote ethnic culture anyway!

A strong blustery wind rose as I rode south, bored witless by the tedium of endless low bush country, dotted with thatch and earth homes, round huts with concentric circles of reed thatch. Countless muddy children everywhere. Endless herds of cows and goats wandering across my road. I did have the comfort of watching the clouds thicken and turn slate blue, building to storm clouds across the entire sky in my mirrors. I’d made the correct decision. One vehicle overtook me in 100 miles, and my Mosquito snails along at just 35 to 40mph. The road is so new that no one’s yet had the enterprise to open a petrol station or chai house along its entire length.

There’s obviously a plan to develop the region, perhaps to accommodate some of the ballooning population. I passed through several non-existent villages, no more than a road-sign and a few feeder roads onto the nearby bush. A few straggly villages whipped past, red dust, incomplete buildings, countless boda-bodas, the only desperate employment opportunity out there, where nothing happens from one week to the next and everyone scratches a near-poverty existence. ‘Educate a girl: you educate a nation’, urged one township. ‘Don’t sell your children. Send them to school’, exhorted another. ‘Sale’ being exchanging child daughters for dowry of cattle and money. Featureless semi slums of scruffy habitations. This frighteningly overpopulated land… My thoughts weren’t very positive.

Finally, almost asleep from boredom after several hours of this featureless road, I reached Soroti. Civilisation. It’s oddly attractive, despite its noise. It has a strong past Indian influence, with arcaded shops along the main street, through which klaxon heavy lorries and several thousand small smelly Chinese motorbikes. The Asians probably left during Idi Amin’s pogroms, and there are few Asian faces now. But the distinctive architectural style survives them. There are banks, regional offices, numerous clothes shops where pink mannequins stand sentry in the covered footpaths, petrol stations and hotels. An arcaded East African main street with Asian influence.

I found a smart £13 hotel on the main street and selected a top floor back room, away from the thoroughfare and klaxons. There’s even a lavatory seat. I’ve a balcony looking down into the yard behind the bank and overlooking the side streets, filled with boda-bodas and noise. I can see right across the town to the deep blue rain clouds boiling all around, 360 degrees of what should be African glare. And tonight there are no stars, just a stiff breeze arising from the rainy north where I should have been tonight. I had a new front tyre fitted in Moroto in preparation too. Fitted at ‘Karachi’s’ motorbike shop, owner, Ali from Pakistan.

The hotel regulations include the following directions:

* Guest room duvets, pillows, bed sheets, and towels are not for wiping shoes.
* The hotel does not allow fighting in the rooms as it can lead to destruction of the hotel property.
* When our staff is cleaning the guest room with or without a guest inside all doors MUST be open.
* Bringing of hazardous goods to the guest room is highly prohibited e.g. fuel explosives etc. In case of any tragedy a guest is fully liable to management’s.
* All hotel items (moveable property) e.g. bed sheets, pillows and their covers, duvets, TV remotes, towels etc, should be left in the rooms intact when checking out.

The Laundry Services price list tells me that washing knickers or pants (at over £1) is more expensive than washing a pair of jeans or washing and pressing a pair of bed sheets. It’s one of the most expensive itemised costs on the list. Only washing a duvet or blanket costs more than a pair of undies. It’s a cultural taboo to wash anyone else’s underwear in much of East Africa.

I am happy to see – on the hotel laundry list – that I could get a carpet cleaned for as little as £6.

A disappointing day, a feeling of frustration and a sense of failure. A feeling that this 2020 safari is more aimless than usual. Now I need to get that leg up and stop feeling sorry for myself! Not every journey, every moment, can be fascinating. And anyway, most of the satisfaction is retrospective! Maybe I’ll look back on this and create the stories of the adventures and highlights as usual. Forget the tedium and disappointments. Life’s pretty good at doing that.

And here’s the rain. Lightning too. Another big rolling storm. Dry season Africa.

DAY 41. THURSDAY 6th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA

I awoke, weary, after a night of heavy persistent rain, thunder and lightning that put out all the lights and empowered a hammering diesel generator in the yard of the bank below my window. It roared from 10.00pm until 8.15 this morning, not even kept at bay by earplugs. The trials of a light sleeper.

My quite new hotel included breakfast in my £13 deal. Two waitresses looked after me, Rose and Angela. Angela was very zealous in her attention, whipping away my plates as I finished. Then: “How’s the White Horse Inn?” she ventured. Imagine my surprise. The White Horse Inn is a fine old colonial hotel on the other side of Uganda, a hotel into which I cheekily bargained my way on two enjoyable occasions. “Angela!” I exclaimed, memory pouring back. Both Rose and Angela worked there, but hailing from this district, have moved to the Town View Hotel here in Soroti. I even have a portrait of Angela in one of my photo books. The old hotel is in Kabale, in Uganda’s beautiful far western mountains, hundreds of miles across the country. And I am recognised two years later. Tourists who engage with hotel staff are uncommon in Africa. We get remembered. It turned out they remembered me from even earlier: the time I stayed a night in another hotel here in Soroti, where they both trained.

Riding away from the hotel – leaving the bed sheets, pillows and their covers, duvets, TV remotes, and towels intact in the room – the road south eastwards from Soroti back towards hectic Mbale is unexceptional, rolling through towns and villages ugly with mud stains and half completed structures. It crosses swampy lands filled with reed beds and glittering ponds of water. Away to the north lies a big straggly lake. Along the way, on the 100 miles back to the family in Sipi, I pass through the village of Television. I wonder how THAT got its name?

I’ve decided to retreat to Sipi. Maybe instead of risking the lone rides with a weak leg, I should get to know my charming Ugandan family better. This trip is taking on a different perspective to the others, more settled and slow owing to my injured leg. Frustrating for one usually so restless, but I must try to turn it to a positive instead.

The view from the Sipi escarpment