Eldoret and Kisumu

Eldoret

From Lake Baringo the few hours ride up and over the cool coniferous and eucalyptus forested Tugen Hills at nearly 3,000m, through the dramatically located hilltop town of Kabernet, then descending into the Kerio Valley and back up again brought me to the temperate, dairy farming plains of the Western Highlands and the city of Eldoret. It was a magnificent road with spectacular views, and such a pleasure to ride. I was heading for Naiberi River Camp situated about 20 kms south of the city.
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After the few hours of perfect, switchbacking asphalt, I decided to take a shortcut, following the GPS coordinates, on a very quiet dirt road, eventually making it after a few challenging obstacles (pictured right).

Set amid the temperate high altitude plains of the Western Highlands, surrounded by fertile green fields and red earth, Eldoret is the centre of the dairy industry in Kenya. Hometown of previous president the notorious Daniel Arap Moi, the city had a recently opened Moi international airport, Moi General Hospital supposedly the best equipped in the country, and the modern Moi University. The city is pleasantly located and its grid system easy to navigate. A favourite port of call was the cheese factory, where a variety of cheeses were produced and sold from the factory shop, including Edam, Ementhal, an overpoweringly pungent (and inedible to me) Stilton, and a very tasty cheddar. Despite the apparent agricultural wealth of the area, I was aware of large numbers of indigents on the streets, apparently homeless. In fact the streets were always crowded, pavements cluttered with woman squatting in front their tiny pyramids of produce for sale – a few tomatoes, onions, or avocadoes. Groups of males hung about at intersections debating loudly some news item from the front page of that day’s newspaper. Newspaper stalls seemed a popular gathering point and source of entertainment.

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Panhandlers’ eyes lit up at the sight of my white face. Whenever I pulled up on my bike, five or six young lads would rush over to offer to guard it. I avoided giving money to begging children, but had no problem paying for a service. Coming out an internet office after about an hour, I photographed these two characters (left) who were supposed to be guarding my bike. Obviously they hadn’t spent the previous night tucked up in a comfortable bed. I managed to slip a few bob into his pocket without him waking.

Even though we were near the equator, the days were surprisingly fresh, though sunny, and the evenings cool. Bounding up a set of stairs on my first day at Naiberi River Camp, to my alarm, left me breathing heavily. Was I that unfit? It was only later I was told we were at an altitude of over 2,000m. This area was home to the Kenya High Altitude Training Centre. Any time I was on the 20 km stretch of road between Naiberi and Eldoret, groups of runners could be seen jogging. It is claimed the people from around here, Kalenjin, are particularly suited genetically to long distance running, producing a disproportionate number of Olympic champions, names such as Kip Keino in the seventies, and more recently Henry Rono and Wilson Kipketer ringing a bell. A story was told to me of the Danish national team brought over a few years previously for training, only to be beaten by two local schoolboys!

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And there I stopped a few weeks enjoying the hospitality of Raj the owner, and the permanently jovial Ash who managed the place. Raj –renowned as a character among overland travelers in this part of East Africa - ran a thriving family textile business in Eldoret and had spent a lot of money making his campsite a destination for anyone in this part of the country, usually en route to or from Uganda. Set on a lush, forested hillside he had cleared areas for camping, built luxury rooms, a swimming pool, and the piece de resistance, his bar and restaurant – part greenhouse and arboretum, with a constant sound of falling water from the stream running through it.

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This warm and steamy idyll attracted not only us tourists. One morning as I sat in the bar catching up on my website, the barman - fortuitously - ambled over for a chat. Reaching my table his eyes suddenly opened wide in fright, as he pointed in panic at a five foot long electric green mamba slowly slithering towards my chair. He stooped and flung a rock at the snake, which disappeared into the greenery as quick as a rubber band flicked from a finger. I was a little more circumspect about where I sat after that, examining the floor, walls and environs for any possible snake sanctuary before settling down!

Travellers
Temporarily resident in Naiberi were Guy and Marleen, a Belgian couple my age (though Guy does look a lot older), traveling in a Toyota ‘bakkie’, or pick-up they’d bought in South Africa. Accommodation was a comfortable looking roof tent, and they carried everything else they needed in the back (including their proud new purchase, a 5’ x 2’ solar panel to charge batteries). Guy had sold his Hairdressing business empire ten years previously and the two of them had been traveling since. Four wheels was only a recent conversion, as previous to that they spent eight years traveling through Asia, South America but mainly Africa two up on a motorbike.

And what a genuine, down to earth, and refreshing couple to meet. Despite having ‘walked the walk’ (or ‘travelled the tracks’) there was an absence of the jaded ‘been there, done that’ attitude sometimes encountered among long term travelers. Only after some time in their company did you realise their reticence and quiet manner hid all these years of experience. Where overland motorcycle travel has now moved on from the earlier pioneering days – there are more of us around now, an informative
website, even film stars are making documentaries on it – Guy and Marleen were modestly getting about encountering and solving difficulties and obstacles without recourse to the amount of shared information available today. They didn’t carry a camera, have a blog, or as much as an address to return to. It really was quite inspiring to meet a couple with no plan, traveling for the sake of travel, and just enjoying life on a day to day basis with a naturally positive frame of mind.

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I was delighted to be present at their wedding day (left). After being romantic partners for twenty five years they bit the bullet when it became clear there was no way around Egypt – the customs carnet needed for their vehicle is ridiculously expensive – but to ship the ‘bakkie’ across the Red Sea from Sudan and drive up through Saudi Arabia. To qualify for a visa, Saudi Arabia require couples to produce a marriage certificate!

An Exciting Business Idea
Dining on Guy and Marleen’s wedding day as guests of Raj at the Sikh Club in Eldoret (the most delicious Indian food I had tasted in Africa) was an enjoyable social occasion. Also present was Marco, a textiles customer of Raj visiting from Italy who had recently flown in. Marco had another project he was pursuing here while on textile business which I found intriguing. Wood pellets. He had a 100% grant from the EU (in other words Marco didn’t have to worry about expenses on his trip to Kenya. He told us of his holiday to Mombassa on the coast which he was looking forward to) to investigate the feasibility of sourcing wood pellets. Because of increasing concern over energy costs, hot water boilers fired with these efficient little wood pellets - previously seen as a little bit ‘alternative’, oil fired central heating is the standard in Ireland – is now being feted as the ‘next big thing’. Only “there’s not enough wood around to satisfy the huge demand for pellets,” according to Carlo. At the moment Eastern Europe is the main source, but he had been assured by one distributor he will take anything Carlo can import into Europe, at whatever cost. Which is where Kenya comes in. The government apparently
gives away waste scrub wood from areas being cleared for agriculture. With a further grant from the EU towards the cost of setting up a pellet production plant, it seems he will be laughing all the way to the bank. Unless someone else gets in there before him I suppose. Someone reading this perhaps. But be warned. When I put it to him someone else might beat him to it, Carlo paused, gave me an unsettling look, and menacingly warned, “Nobody crosses me.”

Waiting for Rene
Awaiting the return of Rene, an overland biker I had met in Nairobi, was my justification for spending time in Naiberi. A plan I had to ship some bike spares from Durban to Nairobi (instead of unneccesarily carrying them the whole way) had fallen through, and Rene who had flown to South Africa for a timely visit to his girlfriend for a few weeks, had kindly offered to bring them back with him.
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(I subsequently learned of alternative ways of getting supplies to Nairobi. Rene six months previously had cleverly given his spares – tyre, chain, sprockets, etc – to an travel company in Cape Town, Africa Overland, who had very obligingly stowed them in one of their trucks).

It was also my intention to visit Uganda – the border was only a few hours away – including the remote and reputedly impressive Murchison Falls, but the reports I was getting from the occasional visiting overland trucks that plied the route from Kenya across to see the gorillas in the Ruwenzori mountains or Rwanda, were of rain on a daily basis. Motorcycling in the rain is no fun, and on dirt roads in the rain, even less fun.

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Kakamega Forest
After being cosseted in the comfort of Naiberi, it was time to stretch my legs a bit and I took off for a break to Kisumu, the third city of Kenya (after Nairobi and Mombassa). My first stop was in the Kakamega Forest Reserve, the last remnants of rainforest that once stretched right across Central Africa. I found a very basic but cheap cabin in the middle of it, where I watched black and white colobus monkeys leaping unbelievable distances between branches, their long white bushy tipped tails following with a flourish, and enjoyed early morning and late evenings walks through this magnificent virgin tropical rainforest (pictured left), and its amazing array of birdlife.

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Kisumu
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From Kakamega it was a couple of hours descent to Kisumu. Rounding a bend, the second largest fresh water lake in the world, and source of the Nile, Lake Victoria, came into view in the Great Rift Valley below. I thought of the Victorian explorers such as Richard Burton, John Speke or David Livingstone coming upon such a body of water for the first time. With the steely blue water surface disappearing to the horizon, it did indeed appear a sea.

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At one time Kisumu used to be the largest port on Lake Victoria but with the demise of the East African Community – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – in 1977 (Idi Amin was in power, and there was a war between Uganda and Tanzania), lake trade disappeared and the port was no longer used. Even passenger services eventually stopped. The town now has turned its back on the lake, and the shore was difficult to access. Looking between some buildings across what appeared to be a large expanse of strangely unoccupied grassy green fields, I was informed that was in fact part of Lake Victoria, and what I was looking at was water hyacinth, a weed that thrives in de-oxygenated fresh water, usually the result of runoff from fertilized land, and from human waste. I had read about the problem here and was shocked at the extent. Propellers on boats got fouled by the weed, and fishermen were being pushed further and further away from the city to pursue their livelihood. Occasionally city officials ignited explosives to clear the weed – temporarily.

Finding a cheap, clean room at the YMCA on the edge of town, I settled in for a few days, basking in the tropical warmth here in the Rift Valley, quite a change from the bracing climate of Eldoret. The main tribe associated with the area is Luo, and it’s the base of the opposition politician Raila Odinga who was increasingly seen as favourite to win the approaching general election. (Odinga Street is the city’s main thoroughfare, named after some illustrious predecessor.) The colour orange was identified with his supporters and was evident all over, in fact all over the country.

I was to discover the roads around Kisumu were in serious need of attention, particularly part of the tortuous and potholed road to Nairobi. And the city's infrastructure had been neglected over the years, a result I was told, of central government in Nairobi's lack of funding to this opposition stronghold. My first impressions of the city were positive. It is attractively laid out, with an obvious centre where most of the citizens were drawn to shop. A number of modern shopping centres contained the usual spread of consumer outlets - a new one on the Nairobi road opposite the YMCA included a cinema complex, selection of bars and restaurants, and a huge Nakumatt supermarket, shelves stocked with everything for the income earning middle classes, from shrink wrapped vegetables and cuts of meat, to South African wines and confectionery.


An (almost) Colonial Experience
Muthaiga Club, where I am staying, releases forgotten gusts of memory… My father was happiest in places like this. He loved clubs and wardrooms with the pre-dinner drinks, the discreet signing of chitties, the smiling elderly waiters (from a class almost extinct now, men who lived to serve other men). I remember arriving in my fathers Pontiac at clubs like this, sweeping (not always silently; the car was old) down to the front door to be deposited and greeted, to be called ‘sir’ by elderly black men. I remember running on the rolling lawns of Kikuyu grass before dinner, the night noises of the exceptionally vocal African insect life striking up as it quickly grew dark, night unrolling from the ground upwards.... a backdrop to our dinner on the terrace to which we have been summoned by the stirring, thrilling, beating of a gong hung from a pair of tusks. We sit straight, elbows tucked in, endless soup spoons, fish knives and butter knives to deal with... The dinner itself, a ritual of many courses, begins to emerge in relays from the swing doors of the kitchen, the food bland and unexceptional, but plentiful and somehow sanctified by being served by the immaculate waiters in sashes and gloves.’ - Justin Carwright - Masai Dreaming

Curious to experience any vestiges of the colonial life, I went along to the Nyanza Club for dinner one evening – Nyanza is the name of this province touching Lake Victoria. Established in the early part of the last century by ex-pat British civil servants, administrators and engineers from the railway, and senior ship staff on the lake, up to recently it was the preserve of members and guests. A changing social climate (they need the business) means anyone can now avail of the facilities, including an inviting pool - indeed were actively welcomed - for a daily temporary membership charge. With an appealing location in a quiet suburb overlooking the lake, the place had character, and had I a slightly more generous budget, would have been an ideal base for a few days. A prominent notice reminded members of the dress code to be observed.

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The friendly new manager Anna attempted to entice me to switch accommodation to the Club, asking me where I was staying and how much was the rate. Embarrassed to declare I was paying $6 a night at the YMCA – I was hoping to impress and, as a non member, watch the final matches of the Rugby World Cup which were being broadcast late via satellite TV – I gestured vaguely over my shoulder in response to her query claiming I couldn’t remember the hotel’s name and, uncomfortable, immediately changed the subject. On a following visit the same matter came up and I owned up to where I was lodging, shrugging, “it’s comfortable and clean” (It wasn’t. Due to regular water stoppages – showers were from a bucket when available - the shared toilets had an overpowering lash, and the reek of piss pervaded the corridor. Despite lying sweating in the still, hot and humid air of my tiny room, the bedroom door stayed closed!)

The dimly lit, panelled bar - a wide range of spirits displayed behind on the mirrored, carved wooden shelves - exuded refinement. The light click of snooker balls drew my eye through an open door where I glimpsed a couple of snooker tables, low suspended lights over the green baize illuminating a slight pall of cigar smoke hanging immobile, in streaks. Kisumu’s well healed, with a few wives and girlfriends present, congregated in clusters at the bar. The quiet murmur of conversation was punctuated with the odd chortle or a bright female laugh. Ice clinked in glasses. I could just make out Neil Diamond playing faintly on the PA. The impeccably groomed and turned out bartenders smoothly and smartly cleared counters, took orders with a nod of acknowledgement, politely greeted customers approaching the bar, and expertly mixed and poured drinks – all seemingly simultaneously. These guys were professionals. There were no white faces in the bar.

The restaurant was from another era - stiff white linen tablecloths, heavy silver cutlery and the attention of numerous formally dressed, respectful waiters. The unimaginative menu didn’t surprise, and though acceptable enough, everything on my plate - T-bone steak (nothing like the sizzling slab of meat I was imagining) with boiled potatoes and vegetables - was predictably overcooked. Desert was a heavy bread and butter pudding.

In my few visits, despite quite a number of customers in the bar and lounge area, on my request the head barman, with a smile of recognition, would switch the satellite TV channel from football to rugby. I managed to enjoy the final three matches of the Rugby World Cup – a surprising semi-final win for England against France, a thrilling third place playoff with Argentina defeating France, and the final predictably won by South Africa. That was the only game that roused the punters out. A mix of various English NGO staff were supporting their country, and, I was interested to see, local Kenyans who were loudly supporting South Africa. A group of six South Africans had just pulled in to the club to watch the game, on a sales tour of East African countries to market their armoured all terrain security vehicles to the various military. On leaving I saw three of the vehicles parked outside, closer to tanks than cars.

Nandi Hills
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Kenya is the third largest tea producer in the world and with its altitude, aspect, and cool and wet climate, the Nandi Hills the largest tea growing area in the country. The road gained altitude quickly as it climbed continuously up from the Rift Valley floor into the hills, and through this picturesque tea growing district on an alternative route back to Naiberi River Camp. I had been warned about the “daily afternoon showers”, and as predicted it began to rain as I stopped to take a picture of the rolling hills covered with tea plantations. No problem – just a matter of throwing on the rain protection gear. The pickers, scattered across the green slopes, were bent picking leaves and tossing them into baskets on their backs. Their protection amounted to a split plastic bag over the head. Rain wasn’t going to stop work – these workers were paid by the amount picked.

Northwards
After a couple more days at Naiberi it was time to move on. At this stage I had given up on the idea of taking the Lake Turkana route (see previous update). Rene, who had arrived back in Kenya with my parts, was going to wait for Guy and Marleen, who were waiting for their Saudi visa to come through. As the days passed I knew I was running out of time. It was disappointing, but I had to be in Addis Ababa in ten days and couldn’t wait.

So with new tyre, chain, sprockets and front brake pads I was ready. It was back over two mountains to Lake Baringo (see previous update) where I then elected to continue north around the lake. Instead of heading back towards Nairobi and taking the established route up through Isiolo, my intention was to make my way across the Western Highlands, and descend to the Chalbi Desert plains which stretch from Uganda across Lake Turkana and Northern Kenya to Somalia, eventually to join the road north to Moyale and the Ethiopian border.

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