• Some Stats: Mwanza-Muscat Part 18 April 10th, 2016

    Before I head off on another adventure I thought it would be interesting to post some statistics from my recent tour, alongside a few comments and reflections:

    Duration of tour: 238 days

    Total distance cycled: 10,375 km

    Total distance on unpaved roads: 2071 km. In northern Kenya and South Sudan I had no other option but to ride on dirt tracks. In other countries – Uganda, Ethiopia and Oman for example, I sometimes chose to take dirt tracks as a more adventurous/quieter alternative to the paved roads.

    Climbing away from Jebel Shams

    Number of non-cycling days: 106. I spent 3 weeks working in Tanzania (not in the original plan when I planned the trip) and took long rest stops in Kampala and Addis Ababa. Fortunately I was not bound by time constraints, so had the luxury to tour slowly and take as many rest days as I liked.

    Mean daily distance cycled: 78 km. People often ask how far I cycle each day. My reply is an average of 80-100km. On this particular tour I did plenty of short days.

    Longest day: 144 km in eastern Ethiopia. I was riding until late hoping to find somewhere to camp – never easy in Ethiopia as so much of the roadside was cultivated and populated. I ended up in a cheap Guest House.

    Highest altitude cycled: 3300m in eastern Ethiopia.

    Cost of visas: £410. Visas in Africa are almost always paid in US $ and the cost of mine as the trip progressed goes as follows: Kenya – $50 (3-month on arrival), Uganda – $100 (3-month on arrival), South Sudan – $100 (applied and paid for in Uganda), Ethiopia visa extension for 3 months$150. (I already had an original visa for Ethiopia that I had bought in London – £60 for a 6-month multiple entry – this needed extending when I was in Ethiopia as it was already 4 months old when I entered the country) Somaliland – $70 (1-month visa bought in Ethiopia), Oman $50 (1-month on arrival which I extended by another 1 month for an additional $50).

    Total cost of tour (including visas): £2450. When I left Tanzania for the final time I emptied my local bank account and changed all the remaining Tanzanian shillings into US $ ($2200 worth to be precise). Carrying more cash than necessary is never really recommended, but this kept me going for some months before I relied on my UK debit card to make cash withdrawals. I expected Oman would be the most costly country to tour through, but I camped almost every night during my time here. This meant daily costs were kept to a minimum, particularly as I wasn’t drinking alcohol and tourist attractions were very cheap.

    Mean cost per day: £10.29. By camping or staying in simple lodgings, eating local food and avoiding expensive tourist activities, my daily costs were relatively modest on this tour.

    Total spent on accommodation: £637.50. Most nights in Africa I stayed in local lodgings, ranging in price from bed-bug ridden £1 Guest Houses in Ethiopia, to more comfortable rooms costing £8-12+ (the highest I paid was £18 in Kenya). During the 3 weeks I worked in Tanzania accommodation was paid for. I was also invited as a guest in several places and used the Warmshowers website when there were hosts on my route.

    Number of nights spent in tent: 59. Most of my camping was done in Oman where I slept in the tent on 41 nights. Only on 1 of these 59 nights was I in a campsite where I paid to sleep (Murchinson Falls National Park in Uganda). I mostly wild camped in Oman because camping here was so safe, easy and scenic. Accommodation in Oman, when it did exist, was also relatively expensive (typically £30 upwards).

    Camping on Mughsal beach

    Total number of beers consumed: 361. This number is about 90% accurate; the 10% uncertainty owing to the days when I drank too many beers to remember. Bottled beer is easily available throughout East Africa. I consumed more beers in Ethiopia than anywhere else, which is partly because the bottles were generally smaller (often 330ml instead of 500ml like Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda) and also because they were so easily available. Beer in Ethiopia was also cheaper than anywhere else (around £0.30 for a bottle) and the hardship of my days cycling here usually demanded I drink at least 2 every night.

    Harar beer

    Mean number of beers consumed per day before arriving in Somaliland: 2.2. Once I left Ethiopia and continued through Somaliland and Oman I went without a drop of alcohol for well over 2 months.

    Number of punctures: (2 in Tanzania 4 in Uganda, 1 in Ethiopia, 1 in Oman).

    Hardest country to cycle through: Ethiopia (by far). Almost every day presented a battle with people (mostly children) who took great delight in chasing and taunting me from the roadside.

    Easiest country to cycle through: Oman. Safe, friendly, easy to camp, scenic, great roads (some can be steep!) – the list could go on. A fantastic winter cycle-touring destination.

    Most pleasant surprise: Being able to cycle freely in Somaliland without an armed escort, which I’d heard might be necessary.

    Country I would most like to return to: South Sudan. For reasons that puzzled me a little at the time, I was deported from the country on a remote road that felt as adventurous as anywhere else I’ve toured on the continent. Several months after leaving I read of another foreign cyclist who was robbed and left badly beaten at the roadside. Looking back, perhaps my desire for adventure had been sensibly curtailed by the police who found me. South Sudan was, and remains, far less secure than most of the other places I toured on this journey, but I’d seen so little of a country that looked like it had so much more to offer.

    Picked up by the Police

    Highlight of the tour: Spending 4 days at sea crossing from Somaliland to Oman with a crew of 15 Indians and a cargo of 500 cows. This was a timeless journey; detached from so many of the World’s problems one is witness to when on terra firma with an Internet connection.

    Sitting with some crew

  • Tanzania again: Mwanza-Muscat Part 2 July 10th, 2015

    Returning to Tanzania wasn’t in the original plan. This was, and remains, to ride north to Ethiopia and beyond. But the British Council, my former employer, needed an English teacher for a short-term contract in July. The job-spec sounded interesting. What would a 600km detour and 3 weeks off the road matter when I had no need to be any place at any particular time.

    So rather than continue north from Kisumu I rode south-east towards Kenya’s Rift Valley – a region of rolling green landscapes, tea-growing estates and welcome cool climates. Naturally this involved a bit of climbing, so it was a good job I’d consumed the 1kg of dates and 1kg of popcorn I had in my panniers when leaving Mwanza.

    Elevation profile: Kisumu-Kericho

    Actually the climb into Kenya’s Rift Valley wasn’t as bad as it looks here. This shows the elevation profile between Kisumu and Kericho – the former lying at an altitude of just under 1200m and the latter, 80km away, at around 2000m.

    I’ve started using this website to find the elevation profile between places. That’s when I can remember to look or have Internet access. Fortunately the strength of mobile Internet in Africa continues to develop faster than anything else here. Kenya, at least in towns, has excellent connection speeds. Worth noting that 2gb of data (including text messaging and about 60 minutes of call time) will cost around £6. That’s more than enough for over a week’s use of Internet on the road. It’s actually significantly cheaper than this in Tanzania.

    Tea plantation country.

    Robinson on the road

    The countryside was scenic, the towns mostly ugly. This came as no surprise. Small shanty-style tin-shacks and larger concrete structures – either abandoned or under construction, made no-where particularly pleasing to the eye when I stopped for something to eat or a place to stay. 

    But I enjoyed the surprise in peoples reactions and subsequent interaction at the roadside when stopping for a drink or stepping into a make-shift eatery. Most of these in Kenya are named ‘hotels’, but it’s simple food and tea on offer rather than accommodation. A lot more beans and chapatis consumed.

    Beans and chapati.

    Highway Hotel Menu

    Highway Hotel

    5 on a motorbike.

    Kiswahili is still widely spoken in Kenya, but it’s not heard as often as in Tanzania. Ethnic languages predominate here – the changing sounds of which are a good an indication of moving from one region to another. So eastwards from the Luo speakers around Lake Victoria it is Kalenjin that dominates the tea growing areas of Kericho and Bomet, before entering Masaai dominated territory that extends up to and across the border with Tanzania.


    Much of the landscape in the latter remains scarcely populated, largely consisting of expansive tracts of scrubland and spiky bush. Here cows and goats probably outnumber people. Massai-dominated towns are in fact as distinguishable by the colourful shawls worn by their long ear-lobed inhabitants as they are by the sight of butchers and the accompanying smell of roasted meat. Nyama Choma (roasted meat) seems to be a staple food in these parts of Kenya.

    Zone Butchery

    Kenyan butchers

    The truth is the meat is very good – far superior to what is served in Tanzania. I ordered 500g of roasted goat meat one evening from the restaurant of a hotel I stayed in (orders of 1kg or 1/2kg are the norm) and decided to do exactly the same the next night. It was some of the best meat I’ve had in Africa – affordable as well at less than £2.

    It might just be that I chose a good place to eat. The sight and smell of some of the butchers here are enough to turn one vegetarian. There are rumours that some nyama choma establishments in Kenya serve up donkey meat to unsuspecting customers. I wonder how that tastes.

    Nyama Choma

    The tarmac road was smooth and mostly quiet as I continued east, dropping in altitude and providing a wide sweeping view of Mt Suswa ahead of me.

    Looking east to Mt Susua

    This route was steering me directly towards Nairobi, which I had little desire nor need to enter for the second time.

    Invisible on google maps, but quite clearly demarcated on my paper map, was a track that appeared to totally bypass the capital. I feared it might be a busy short-cut, but soon realised once I saw the turn off just beyond the small town of Suswa, that it would be anything but. So I filled up my water bottles, bought some bananas, spaghetti, tomatoes and sukuma wiki (a green-leafed spinach type veg) and headed off into the bush planning to camp.

    Off the main road

    I had been looking forward to a night in the tent and had a wide expanse of land to choose from. Well that’s not strictly true. Surrounded by acacia trees and various other thorny foliage it made little sense to venture far from the track before pitching the tent.

    I think some people are under the impression that I spend most of my nights in this small green enclosure. I don’t. When adequate roofed accommodation is available for around £5 or less, which it often is in populated parts of East Africa, I don’t see much point in camping, unless I’m surrounded by some spectacular natural beauty, which usually isn’t the case if there are lots of people living in an area. Besides, wild camping isn’t particularly relaxing or safe if you are close to where people live, but trying to hide yourself. I’ve always found in this situation that it’s better to go and say hello and ask permission to camp. Invariably this often means pitching a tent somewhere like a school or church, or within someone’s compound. I’ve done this many times before in Africa.

    Anyhow, this kind of landscape, despite the mine-field of thorns, was one perfect for camping. I pitched the tent under a full moon and woke up with the tranquility of bird-song rather than a group of noisy children waiting outside for me.

    Camping in Masaai land

    Acacia Thorn

    Moth in my tent

    Fortunately the tyres remained puncture-free as I continued the following morning on a deteriorating but perfectly bikeable track in the direction of Ngong. It was hard to believe I was so close to Nairobi. My surroundings hadn’t felt more remote on this journey. Dirt tracks are always more memorable.

    Two wheels OK

    End of the road

    Back road to Ngong

    A steep climb

    Looking back over Masaai land

    Back on tarmac I joined the main road connecting Kenya with the Tanzanian border of Namanga. More Nyama Choma towns.

    By now I was able to greet people with a call of ‘Supa’ (the Masaai greeting for hello, which I probably mis-pronounced by just shouting ‘super’ at everyone – I think the correct pronunciation is ‘sopa’) from the saddle.

    Another Nyama Choma town

    I had music playing most of the time. When I first started touring I used to wear headphones to listen to music. Perhaps that was in the days before mini-speakers became so compact. Now I have a little blue-tooth speaker that sits in a small frame bag. It weighs almost nothing and emits a decent sound for its size. I just need to download some more music to play out of it.

    Music on the road

    Tanzanian immigration stamped me in for free when I returned. Bonus. Apparently a 90-day single-entry tourist visa, which I have, allows multiple entries back into the country for which the visa belongs to, assuming you are re-entering from Uganda and Kenya. This isn’t publicised, but is part of some East African Community agreement. Without knowing about it I can quite easily imagine many a traveller handing over a $50 bill for another visa. Hard to believe anyone in such an instance being told that it isn’t necessary to pay as their current visa remains valid.

    Namanga border between Kenya and Tanzania.

    The first thing I did after leaving Namanga and the trucks at the border is eat a potato omelette, more commonly known as chips mayai in Tanzania. It’s the national dish and designed for cyclists who want a low-cost high calorie meal. They don’t serve this in Kenya. They should. One usually has the option in places that dish out this African delicacy to order mishkaki (kebabs) – a woeful sized quantity of meat skewered onto one stick. It’s sensible to order at least several – they don’t cost much either.

    Chips Mayai: Tanzania's national dish

    It was massai land again on the road south to Arusha. Here the young shepherds bedecked in colourful finery seemed more interested to flag me down than they did in Kenya. It was always more than just a greeting of course. As I wrote in the previous post no-one ever asks you to stop in Africa just to say hello.

    101km to Arusha

    Evening shadow and Mt Longido

    Massai smile

    Masaai cyclist

    Masaai boys

    Massai feet

    Luxury awaited me in Arusha.I knew the hotel I was booked into and grinned widely as I ducked under the security barrier and rolled-up to the entrance. ‘You can’t park here’, said one of many uniformed guards as he took my camera and offered to take a picture.

    Arriving at The Arusha Hotel

    Ten minutes later I was stepping into a room that I would never be staying in were I paying for it. Lucky me. The only disappointment was the manager not agreeing to my suggestion of placing the bicycle on the balcony.

    Room in The Arusha Hotel

    The Arusha Hotel is one of east Africa’s oldest establishments, although nothing looks like it was here in 1884. Back then there would have been none of the groups of tourists that fill this place now. The car park if full of tour buses and safari vehicles. July is the start of the high season for trips to Serengeti, the Ngorogoro Crater and treks up Mount Kilimanjaro. Big business for people here. Arusha has dozens of forex bureaus. The moment I step out of the hotel I’m practically jumped upon by someone wishing to sell me something.

    I’m here for a few more weeks delivering an English language course to a group of ‘creative artists’. After that the journey continues.

    For those wishing to see the route I took from Kisumu-Arusha, scroll to the bottom of this page.

  • Here I go again: Mwanza-Muscat: Part 1 June 26th, 2015

    I hadn’t expected the tears. After 2 years I was wheeling the bike out of the gate for the final time. Leaving Mwanza. Leaving familiarity. Leaving friends and the comforts of having my own place and space. What a luxury that had been. I knew I would miss it, but it was time to move on.

     Tears at the gate

    It would have been easy to stay had my job contract been extended. Probably just as well it wasn’t. The work I was doing on paper had fizzled-out a long time ago. Whatever my employer in Dar-es-Salaam thought teacher trainers like myself were doing ‘up-country’ I have no idea.

    I had been posted to Mwanza to work in a Government Teacher Training College, but I soon came to the conclusion that no-one really did any work there. No wonder the country’s education system was in such a dire state. Tutors in the college rarely went to teach a class and once the novelty of my presence soon wore off I reached the conclusion that most people didn’t really care if I was there or not. It was just as well I liked living in Tanzania.

    From an outside perspective I was just a small fish in a foreign-funded aid project, employed as part of a poorly coordinated effort to improve the English language education system in a country where Kiswahili is very much the national language. It was always going to be a challenge. At the end of a two-year contract it was a more optimistic soul than me who said they had made a real impact or improvement in the education system.

    The Ministry of Education had happily signed-up to the project when the donor was ready to release funds. Well why wouldn’t they have done? African governments love outside assistance. British tax-payers money in this case.  

    I could continue for some while yet about the reasons for Tanzania’s failing education system and the enlightening insights gained from working on an aid project in Africa, but I shall return to the tears at the front gate. They didn’t last long. Well had no real reason to cry. Yes I was sad to be leaving, but also happy to be hitting the road again.

    Saying goodbye

    I always suspected when I finished my contract that I would just pedal off. It seemed like the simplest thing to do. One push on the pedals and you’re free-wheeling away – assuming you’re going downhill to begin with, which I was.

    Rolling out of Mwanza

    The road through and out of town was of course familiar. There are only two principal routes into and out of Mwanza. One leads south towards Shinyanga and the rest of Tanzania (the same road I cycled on a daily basis to college at one time) and the other east, rounding Lake Victoria’s Speke Gulf before it turns north in the direction of Kenya. It was the latter that I and two friends pedalled out on.

    The weather couldn’t have been better really. It had just rained and rain is almost always welcome in Africa, particularly in the dry season. The sky was overcast and the air refreshingly cool. I didn’t even apply sunscreen.

    For some years Ethiopia has been on my list of countries to visit, so when I first conceived the idea of a cycle tour at the end of my contract, this seemed like the most obvious place to pedal off towards. That remains the plan. But then I started reading about Somaliland (not Somalia) and how great Oman was to tour in winter. Mwanza-Muscat had a nice sounding ring to it, so there we are.

    Unlike the last several tours I have made in the past few years I don’t have a specific time-frame for this journey. It’s great to have that luxury again. The freedom to wake up somewhere and think yes, I will stay here another day, or look at a map and decide to take some circuitous and remote dirt road rather than rushing along a main route. That’s a great feeling.

    So I rolled out of Mwanza at a rather leisurely pace on that Sunday morning, my front panniers about 5kg heavier than they needed to be owing to various foodstuffs that weren’t a necessity to carry (1kg of dates, 2 large mangoes, 1 kg of popcorn, 500g of oats, 500ml of cooking oil, 500g of Tanzanian coffee and a can of redbull that had been left over at a small leaving party I’d thrown a few nights previously).

    I’d laid all the gear out the previous night on the floor of my sitting room, then put it into panniers and balanced them out the following morning. Well that didn’t didn’t take long. I’ve done it hundreds of times. Tool bag and spare front tyre below foodstuffs in one front pannier, cooking pots, stove, tupperware container (holding salt, pepper, chilli and curry powder, spork, lighter) and more foodstuff in the other front pannier. The rest finds a home in the rear panniers with the camping bag bungeed onto the top of the rack. Oh, and my handlebar bag that contains camera, passport, money and map. All in all about 34kg on a bike weighing 20kg. That’s not a light load, but if I wanted to lose several plus kgs, aside from the food, there are plenty of ways. Those jeans with the leather belt perhaps. I never used to tour with a pair of jeans, but then there are occasions, not camping in the bush, where it’s nice to get out of cycling gear.

    My kit laid bare

    Fully-loaded and ready

    I only got as far as the small town of Magu on that first day, just 65km. Rain fell heavily for a few hours so I took an early lunch stop with one of the friends who would later turn back, then waited for it to pass.

    Rain delays play

    Roadside eateries are common and easy to find in Tanzania. A bucket of water, like the one pictured above, acts as a hand-basin to wash your hands before and after a meal, which is very much the custom. How clean the water is inside the bucket who knows, but rather than look for a sign-post advertising somewhere to eat, a bucket like this is a better indication that food is nearby. In more simple establishments it will be cooked outside over a few charcoal braziers.

    Food on the road in much of Sub-Saharan Africa is a simple affair. Rice, beans, Ugali (cassava or maize stodge – see pics) meat (one of or a choice of chicken, beef, goat, fish) and some green-leafed veg pretty much sums up the majority of lunches. One can’t really go wrong with beans, which has the habit of producing some serious post-lunch sound effects from the area of my saddle. I always tell anyone who cycles with me that the most dangerous place to be on the road is right behind me.

    Fish and Rice

    Lunch in Lamadi

    Border nosh

    Fuel stop

    Lunch in Mbita

    Beef, Ugali and Sukuma wiki

    I knew the road as far as Bunda, having cycled it before in the opposite direction. Lake Victoria is never very far away, but mostly out of sight. It’s not a particularly scenic road – most flat ones aren’t, but following the rains the landscape is green and for a brief stretch the road forms the western boundary of the Serengeti National Park. Most large animals are probably sensible enough to stay further inside the park, but zebra, wildebeest, baboons and monkeys don’t seem particularly bothered by passing traffic.

    Edge of Serengeti National Park

    Beer carrier

    In Bunda I missed the opportunity to sleep in the JoyDick Hotel, having already checked-in to one of the many other affordable lodgings that were less amusingly named. Like food, accommodation in Tanzania is easy to find and most places have the added bonus of composing of a single storey. This means it’s easy to wheel the bike into the room rather than having to lug it up some stairs.

    Tanzanian Accommodation

    Guest house in Bunda

    North of Bunda I veered off on a dirt track towards the sleepy lakeside town of Musoma. At one time in the early 20th Century this was an important German garrison town, when Tanzania was part of Deutsch Ostafrika. Now its dusty grid-lined streets and faded shop-fronts display neglect. In Africa it’s much easier to build new again rather than maintain something that’s old.

    Balancing rocks

    Lake shore Musoma

    Downtown Musoma

    Goats in Musoma

    The lake at Musoma was a wonderful bright shade of green. Highly uninviting to go for a swim in. In actual fact during the 2 years I lived in Mwanza I only once went for a swim in the lake, and that was off a beach on the island of Ukerewe.

    Unlike Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika, where the water is blue, clear and clean, much of Lake Victoria is a murky mess. There are various reasons for this. One is the introduction of the infamous ‘Nile Perch’ by British Colonial officials in the 1950’s. While Lake Malawi and Tanganyika have hundreds of small cichlid fish that eat up bacteria and detritus, the Nile Perch, which grows to monster sizes, eats all these fish. Many businessmen and government officials see the fish as an economic boost (the fish is exported around the world), but it’s also the story of an environmental disaster.

    Aside from the uninviting colour of the lake for a swim, there is bilharzia to worry about, and the usual stories involving crocodiles and hippos.

    Uninvitingly green!

    Back on tarmac I continued towards the Kenyan border, the climb in altitude a reminder that I really didn’t need to be carrying 1kg of popcorn. Rocky outcrops flanked the roadside and the scenery improved.

    Kenyan cyclist

    At one point in the mid-day heat I spotted a small solid object slowly moving across the road in front of me. As I approached and got off the bike it stopped then disappeared into its shell. It wasn’t going to move until I did, but I was glad it had safely made it across the road. It’s not a common sight to see tortoises on the road in Africa. At least not in my experience. Dead snakes or dogs are much more familiar.

    Tortoise crossing

    At the Kenyan border I very nearly didn’t pay my $50 for a 90-day visa. Very nearly in the sense that I had been given my passport back and told to enjoy my stay in Kenya without having paid any money.

    ‘Is there anything else?’ I asked the pretty immigration clerk before preparing to walk out of the clean and newly built hall. ‘No that’s it’, came the slightly unsure reply. Well I could have reminded her there and then, but didn’t. I was 10 seconds from wheeling the bike through the barrier nearby and disappearing off before a security guard called me back.

    In Kenya’s first town, Migori, the bank wouldn’t change my Tanzanian shillings. I could have done this at the border nearby, but my neighbours in Mwanza had been scammed there recently in an identical fashion to one I recall at another African border. ‘No-one here wants that money’, said the corpulent bank manager who was more interested in knowing the value of my bicycle. ‘You can find a forex bureau in Kisumu’. So I changed some British Pounds and went in search of a Guest House and cold beer.

    Kenya's classic

    New beer - once only!

    Kisumu was where I was headed to, but I chose to ride back towards the lake from Migori. It was a scenic dirt track in stretches – green hillsides and views of the lake in places. Not much four-wheeled traffic, but often three or four people on a moto-taxi.

    Road to Magunga

    Rough road to Mbita

    Looking south to the Gwasi Hills

    Interacting with Kenyans in shops and roadside eateries is a lot easier than with many Tanzanians. Firstly people speak a lot more English, but more importantly there is a greater level of confidence about them. In Tanzania I could converse in simple Kiswahili, but there was often a reserved nature about people. Many would be surprised a mzungu could speak Kiswahili, so it was less common that they would initiate a conversation, while children would call ‘mzungu’ out from the roadside, but often runaway if I stopped or attempted to take a picture.

    The usual suspects.

    Local shop in rural Kenya

    The context here however is more or less often the same. Stories of poverty, the need for school fees etc etc. In one village where I wanted to confirm I was heading in the right direction an elderly man called me over. He was manning a small petrol pump. ‘What can you do for me’? he asked while I looked down at my paper map. I laughed, made sure I was on the right road, then pedalled off. It was a question I heard more than a few times.

    Well that’s nothing new. Cycle tour through Africa and rarely will there be a day when something isn’t asked of you by someone. I learnt a long time ago that it’s good practice not to stop when someone is waving you down or pretending they need water from your bottles when there is a water source nearby. Rather than just wanting a chat, which may well be the case, there will often be some other agenda that involves me providing financial help.

    Most Kenyans in this part of the country aren’t hesitant to tell you how much of a problem AIDS is. Western Kenya has some of the highest rates in Africa. When I asked people for the reasons they simply said it was due to poverty. It was usually me who suggested that the rates would be lower if people used condoms. Condoms are free here, so there is no excuse there.

    Another noticeable feature of rural Kenya is how many abandoned and boarded-up buildings there are at the roadside. Makeshift corrugated or wooden shacks are favoured over concrete structures – the kind of places that could be constructed in half a day with minimal cost. I’m not sure why I imagined Kenya to be more developed in this respect. Rural poverty is very evident.

    Local Barbershop

    Village sound system

    Boarded-up shops

    When I rejoined tarmac from the village of Mbita it was on that super-smooth texture that signals a sign of Chinese influence in recent years. I had cycled just under 600km from Mwanza and had less than 100km to reach Kisumu.

    East from Mbita

    Well that’s where I am now. Enjoying fast Internet and several days of rest in a room larger than some of the cell-like spaces I might spend a night. I haven’t actually camped yet. Possibly on the next stretch. From here I’m heading off in a totally different direction to Ethiopia. More about that in the next post. A map of the route I just took and an elevation chart can be viewed at the bottom of the Maps page.

    Room in Kisumu

  • And the winner goes to: Reflections from 2011 January 3rd, 2012

    Another year passes by on the roads of Africa; this one spent between the mountains of northern Cameroon and the tranquil shores of Lake Malawi. I managed a modest 12,000km of cycling –  about the same as last year, and crossed through 8 countries.

    There were jungles and big rivers, endless palm-fringed beaches, bribe-demanding immigration officers and chaotic urban traffic. Last year I wrote a post summing up some of the memorable places and experiences of 2010, so here is a similar list of random highlights and lowlights from 2011. Feel free to comment and add a category. And a belated Happy New Year to all those who’ve followed the journey, whether it be from the beginning  or more recently.

    Destination I’d most like to return to: Zanzibar. The famous spice island of the Indian Ocean is popular with tourists for a good reason. It might not be wild, untamed and adventurous Africa, but the authentic Swahili culture and food, beautiful white sand beaches and fascinating history all compacted together make this one great place to cycle.

    Stone town back street

    Most interesting week of the year: The one where I travelled by boat up the mighty Congo river. This was/is the Africa of boyhood imagination. A Conradian journey through the equatorial jungle, and one that very few westerners have taken in recent decades.

    Sunrise on the Congo

    Worst day of the year: 5th July. I returned to what had been the locked room of a Guest House in Kenya to find it open and most of my valuables missing.

    Best new piece of equipment: In light of the above I bought a key-hole blocker. This small piece of metal jams into a keyhole and prevents someone with a spare key from entering a locked room.

    Key-hole blocker

    Most scenic country: Rwanda. I only spent 1 week here, but would have happily spent longer. Wonderfully green, clean, peaceful and challenging to cycle.

    Hardest day on the road: Northern Mozambique: 90km of hot sandy tracks, including two bridge/boat-less river crossing and a lot of mangrove swamps. I pushed the bike for half the day and finished it by falling into the Indian Ocean completely exhausted.

    After the mangroves

    Most expensive/over-priced country: Mozambique. Not quite sure why one of Africa’s poorest countries is also, at least in terms of accommodation, probably one of the most expensive. Paying $10+ per night to pitch a tent in Africa isn’t budget travel.

    Most Awkward moment: Being told by my long-term Japanese cycling companion that he’d read my website and found out what I’d been writing about him.

    Hardest border crossing: Exiting Central African Republic (CAR) for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The CAR immigration officials demanded money to have my passport stamped and returned to me. After an hour or so I settled for buying them beers before crossing the Ubangui River to DRC where a similar experience awaited me.

    Most water consumed in one day: 11 litres. Brutally hot weather on the road south from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania had me continually stopping to drink water with no toilet stops to show for it. The 11 litres doesn’t include the coca-cola stops.

    Country I think about returning to the most: DRC. Every day was an adventure in this huge country. All those unexplored rivers and roads and the villages where foreign faces have never been seen before made this the most exciting of travel destinations.

    Pole man and fish

    Best beer award: Primus in the DRC. There was something distinctly African about drinking one of the continent’s most famous beers with Congolese music playing in the background. I was also a fan of the 720ml bottle size.


    Worst beer award: Carlsberg in Malawi. Am as unimpressed by the size of the bottle (the first country in Africa where beer comes in bottles smaller than 500ml) as I am by the taste and lack of alternative beers

    Most unexpected telephone call: Tim Butcher, author of Blood River, calling me from South Africa when I was in Kisangani to ask if I could give a copy of his book to one of the characters in it who helped him organise boat transport on the Congo River.

    Busiest road: Mombasa Highway in Kenya. One constant stream of trucks taking goods from the coast to half a dozen countries. Fortunately I was only on it for 50km.

    Most noiticeable difference when crossing a border: Crossing from DRC to Rwanda. Whilst the former was chaotic, poor and massively underdeveloped, the latter was calm, clean and much more advanced in terms of infrastructure and general development.

    Most worthwhile detour: Cycling around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. The ride took me from arid Massai-dwelling villages to deeply forested woodlands, all the time with Africa’s highest mountain looming in the background.

    Below Kilimanjaro

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Uganda and Malawi. These two anglophone countries are full of smiling faces and eager to get-to-know-you English speakers.

    Colourful characters: Ugandan school children

    African language I learnt the most of: Swahili. Starting from as far back as eastern Congo, Swahili was spoken in parts of Rwanda and Uganda and then more seriously in Kenya, and particularly Tanzania. I was even able to use it for the first few weeks in northern Mozambique. I learnt and spoke the most during my time in Tanzania.

    Biggest made to feel like an idiot moment: Counting my Malawian money that I’d received in exchange for Mocambican metacais on the the black market and realising that I’d been cheated.

    Best food award: Tanzania: I never seemed to get tired of chappatis, the fried street food, fresh fish on the coast, spicy biriyani and pilau and the road-side fruit and nut sellers.

    Most restless night of sleep: In a maternal clinic in the DRC. During the night someone died and another gave birth a few metres from my tent. It was pitched black and all I can remember was a lot of screaming, crying, the sound of drums outside and rain lashing on the corrugated roof.

    Most over-heard song at the roadside: Nwa baby I don’t think there is a country in sub-Saharan Africa where this Nigerian song has not been played to death during 2011.

  • The Kilimanjaro Loop August 30th, 2011

    “I went out to Mount Kilimanjaro, which I thought was very beautiful, but there were a lot of people there”. (Ralph Fiennes)

    One of those new Chinese roads provided my exit from Kenya. There are a lot of these in Africa. In fact there probably isn’t a country on the continent that hasn’t had some Sino-African road-building agreement signed. Well Africa needs better roads, and the Chinese do a good a job at providing them. I think you could travel most of the length of Africa if you wanted to on Chinese built roads, but dirt tracks are always more interesting.

    The Chinese influence in Africa is an interesting one. It still amazes me that even in those small Congolese towns, which were surrounded by awful roads and hundreds of square kilometres of dense jungle, that there would be a Chinese shop run by Chinese people. I wondered at the time how these people got here. When, by what means and why did they come? I was surely as much of a stranger in this deep pocket of the World as the people whom the kids called ‘Ching-chong’ were, although some might have been there for decades. They would have been able to speak Lingala or Swahili, but I’m sure probably still ate rice with chopsticks everyday.

    Well there were no Chinese on this 100km stretch of road connecting Emali with the border town of Loitokitok (not the easiest town name to pronounce), but their presence had left a mark on the children who still yelled out a ‘hee-hor’ and giggled as I rode past.

    This road was in fact one of the smoothest and quietest stretches of tarmac I’ve been on for a very long time. Most of what traffic there was consisted of safari vehicles transporting sleeping tourists to one of two nearby National Parks – Amboseli or Tsavo West. As they sped by I’d get a glimpse of the white faces and try to guess at the nationality. I think I’ve seen more white faces behind the window of a moving vehicle in Kenya than I have in all other African countries combined. Well it’s high-season, which is another reason I avoided the coastal towns like Mombasa and Malindi.

    To give those sleeping tourists credit the scenery was fairly monotonous. A flat arid expanse of thermarest-puncturing bush stretched out either side of this new road, the only colour being the occasional maasai herdsman staring vacantly at me as I contemplated stopping to ask and take a photo.

    It was also windy, and I had forgotten how much I hate head-winds. The harder you push to combat them and hit double figures for speed (10km/hr) the stronger they come at you. I sought refuge for a night in a wooden hut on the outskirts of a dusty village inhabited by drunken maasai. The hut was in fact the chief’s office, and quite a change of scenery from that western furnished apartment with swimming pool complex in Nairobi. That really was a dose of luxury.

    Chief's office

    Into Tanzania

    Tanzania welcomed me with a 90-day visa, (when I only asked for 60) and the reassurance that I would only pay $50 for it when the Kenyan immigration official on being stamped out said that British passport holders paid $100, of which I didn’t have.

    That said my visa was disappointing. As I’m sure many other globe-trotting nomads do, I’m fond of sitting down every once in a while and thumbing through my passport at the interesting stamps and visas I’ve collected from seldom-visited countries and infrequently used borders. The Tanzanian immigration official merely gave me a smudged blue stamp including date, and a messy biro scribble next to it saying ‘Paid $50’. It was the same when I first came to Tanzania 11 years ago. ‘Don’t I get a sticker?’ I asked as he handed it back. ‘You should have gone to the embassy for one of those. Our machine is broken’.

    Tanzanian visa

    One of the reasons I crossed into Tanzania where I did was to see Mt Kilimanjaro up close. Africa’s highest mountain and one of the continent’s most iconic landmarks was right next to me. An awesome spectacle – at least it would have been if it wasn’t in the clouds.

    I rode south from the border along a scenically undulating road to the town of Marangu, a popular starting point for those who’ve paid the $1000 or so for the 6-7 day climb. I wonder if this mountain rakes in more money per year from climbers than any other on the planet? People climb it year round, whereas Everest for example is only climbed in 3-4 months of the year, I think?

    Well I couldn’t leave without seeing it, so decided to cycle around it. And just as I google-searched and found a website connected with cycling and the mountain I received a face-book message from the same author.

    Elvis (yes that is his real name, he says) is possibly/probably the only black African cycle-tourer I’m likely to meet. Several years ago he contacted me from his home in Arusha, Tanzania and explained his plan to tour solo through Southern Africa, which is just what he did. Earlier this year he was involved as an organiser in the Tour d’ Afrique – a popular bike race/tour from Cairo to Cape Town.

    Elvis the Tanzanian tourer

    We met mid-way round the mountain, and rode together for a day. He plans another big trip, starting in Chile next year and finishing back in Tanzania (ChiletoKili.com I think?).

    Kids on the chase

    Looping around Kilimanjaro was a great idea. The clouds cleared for a few days to reveal the majesty of the 5895m peak, and the landscape and scenery was constantly changing from dry-arid savanna dotted with masaai villages to thick forested slopes. No surprise several companies organise tours around the mountain, although I saw very few tourists and no-one on a bicycle.

    Below Kilimanjaro

    Rough road descent

    Northern side of Kilimanjaro

    Maasai family

    Maasai woman

    Masaai sandles

    Maasai boy

    Masaai walking home

    Evening wood collection

    Young maasai girl

    Girls near Kilimanjaro

    Camera-shy kids

    I left Elvis just before descending another 500m in altitude to Lake Chala. This tiny Crater Lake straddles the border between Tanzania and Kenya. It also came up in a google-search of cycling around Kilimanjaro, alongside another link to the story of a young English girl who’d been eaten by a crocodile here some 10 years ago. The owner said the crocs were no longer there now, but I decided to avoid taking a dip and instead watched the elephants grazing below on the plains that extend into Tsavo west National Park.

    Lake Chala

    An elephant was here

    Bush camp

    Leaving Kilimanjaro shrouded in clouds again I hit the highway south. I’m now typing this from the town of Same, which wins an award for having the slowest Internet connection in Africa. I had hoped to post this with photos, but when it took the best part of 30 minutes to open up my e-mail I gave up.

    The town sits directly beneath the Pare mountains, which unless you’ve been to you’ll probably never have heard of.

    One of those inviting white lines on the map that wiggles between the contours leads away from the highway here and says ‘follow me, no-one comes this way much and I’m off the beaten-track.’ Well this is far more appealing than sticking with the trucks to the coast. Assuming the tracks on the map do exist I can continue behind the Pare and Usambara mountains and find my way to the Indian Ocean north of the town of Tanga. I’m looking forward to hitting the coast again. Cameroon, Limbe and the Atlantic Ocean seem a long way away.

    Alone on the highway

  • Nairobi for a while August 16th, 2011

    When a nervous voice at the other end of the line said he had my stolen hard-drive I thought I was on the road to recovering it. That was two weeks ago, shortly after arriving in Nairobi. Well I left yesterday and there is still no sign of it. The anonymous caller, whose name I managed to confirm, put the phone down on me after I told him where it could be safely deposited. I explained the reward (a substantial amount and far more than the hard-drive could ever be sold for) would be paid if it was still intact. He thought I was trying to set him up. When I called back the phone was switched off. It’s been that way since. Deeply frustrating. I sent text messages to reiterate my word. Still nothing. Perhaps when I’m long gone something will surface.

    As for the items that were stolen – the kind and overwhelming response from my last post ensured that I have replaced what was taken from me. Many many thanks to those who donated something.

    Let me skim back  over the past several weeks to bring you up to the present. Apologies for the hiatus in blog-writing.

    The ride from Kapsabet to Nairobi was cold, wet, and in places more challenging than I expected. Dropping to below 1300m in altitude after descending off the Nandi escarpment close to Kapsabet (my GPS was the only electronic item spared from being stolen, probably because the thief thought it could be tracked, which it can’t) I spent the best part of an afternoon and another morning climbing back up to over 2800m. This probably makes it the longest climb both in vertical ascent and distance (about 35km) on this journey.

    Tired, famished and cursing one of the worst country maps I’ve used in Africa (Globetrotter your Kenyan country map is useless) I managed to meet up with another trans-continental cyclist before he continued towards Uganda. Ken, also English, started his African adventure in Egypt last year and is on a possibly slower and more meandering course to South Africa than me.

    Meeting Peter Gostelow from Ken McCallum on Vimeo.

    Entering Nairobi was made easier thanks to the guidance of several Kenyan cyclists. David Kinjah is the founder of SafariSimbaz, an NGO that focuses on training Kenya’s youth to become future cycling champions. In a country where competitive cycling is taken about as seriously as beach volleyball in Mongolia, that’s not easy. Lack of funding and support means David works full time chasing sponsors and organising events, but it’s a labour of love, at least the cycling aspect

    David Kinjah

    He led me to his home outside Nairobi – a simple compound of tin-roof shacks, most of which contain dozens of bikes. BMXs, racers, mountain bikes – his home is a museum/show room of second hand bikes and spare parts. And good quality ones it should be noted.

    “Many of the boys who come here and stay have problems with family and school. I want them to learn discipline, learn about bike maintenance and those who have the interest and potential – how to race.”

    I returned with a camera to see David on a later date, and wanted to share some of the photos here. Should you be passing through Nairobi on the bike and need some maintenance or spare parts I highly recommend getting in touch (he re-greased my pedal and front hub ball-bearings and totally replaced the crank arms when he discovered the chain ring holes had worn from not being attached to the crank arms tightly enough). To top off his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things bicycle-related he’s a thoroughly nice guy – open, honest and friendly.

    David and some of his bikes

    The bike work-shop

    Work shop and bedroom

    Apprentice mechanic

    Bike workshop

    Young Simbaz

    Regreasing the front hub

    Changing the crank arms

    David Kinjah (left) and the young SafariSimbaz

    From his simple tinned-roof living quarters David escorted me to a Nairobi address where high gates, guards and swimming pools are more the norm. An entirely different World, and an all too familiar environment in urban Africa when your host is a well-paid expatriate. On this occasion my host wasn’t even there, so I had a 3-bedroom furnished apartment to myself.

    The truth is I’d only met John a few days previously, before he returned to England on leave – another kind stranger taking an interest in my trip. As a keen cyclist and from working in Africa over the years John has played host to other cyclists crossing the continent. And so he just left me the keys.

    It was easy under such circumstances to stay longer than I originally planned. When that anonymous caller gave me what has turned out to be false hope, I felt delaying my departure from Nairobi was a good thing. Another kind stranger brought out replacement gear from the UK and I lived like one of the many white faces in this city by shopping and drinking good coffee in an enormous mall within walking distance. It felt so utterly detached from the Africa of several months ago, and I sought comfort from thinking that any day I wanted I could so easily leave all this behind. Which is what I did yesterday morning.

    I’m typing this from the town of Machakos, which lies some 70km east of Nairobi and thankfully off the Mombasa Highway. The latter must surely be one of Africa’s busiest roads. Mombasa is east Africa’s largest port and when you think trucks continuing beyond Kenya to Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia Rwanda, Burundi and eastern DRC ply this route you can imagine what kind of cycling experience it is.

    For a time I considered continuing to the Kenyan coast and from there pushing south into Tanzania, but the lack of quiet roads is partly why I’m turning directly south from here and heading towards one of the continent’s most famous landmarks – Mt Kilimanjaro. Will I climb it? No. The high cost and shear number of tourists walking up it lessens the appeal, but I’ll happily cycle around the base and gaze up to the snow-capped summit from the comfort of the saddle.

    And as I click on the publish button from this website and note the date I realise that exactly 2 years ago I pedalled out of that small village in South West England. I think that means it’s time to get out of this Internet cafe and hit the road. If anyone has friends/contacts in Tanzania I’d be happy to hear from you. I’m mostly sticking to the coast as I head towards Mozambique.

  • The Clean Sweep: Robbed July 16th, 2011


    “The horror! The horror!” (Joseph Conrad)

    I think it’s every traveller’s worst nightmare: to return to your room and find a thief has been inside. You locked your door when going out and now it’s open. Standing at the doorway you take stock of the bed and floor, which is now scattered with the contents of your bags. But of course it’s not all the contents. The thief does not want your clothes, your tool bag or your spare inner tubes. It is cash, cameras, laptop and any other item deemed valuable in the eyes of this crook.

    Well this particular crook did a good job. The only valuable item left in my room was my passport. Otherwise it was pretty much a clean sweep. Laptop and modem – gone, Nikon SLR camera with 2 lenses – gone, compact camera – gone, money belt containing credit card, £100+ cash and personal collection of African bank notes from every country I’ve been to – gone, Ipod and external mini speakers – gone, camera tripod – gone, solar battery charger – gone, tent poles (bizarrely enough) gone. But most significantly of all, far more valuable than electronic items that can be replaced, was my external hard-drive. This is the storage device that contains thousands of photos and videos of the trip. I had last backed up my photos in Nigeria, over 6 months ago, and was planning to do another back-up in Nairobi within a few weeks.

    And what of the bicycle? Well fortunately that was with me at the time. In actual fact I was still on the Guest House premises when the theft took place.

    Let me put this awful story into a much wider context. Then you’ll realize just how angry, frustrated, dumbfounded and emotional I am about it all. This is going to be quite a long blog post. Please bear with me.

    I was and still am as I sit here now, in the small town of Kapsabet, western Kenya. The region has a cool climate and is surrounded by rolling hills of tea plantations and forests. I came here for a specific purpose, which was to observe and assist in a distribution of 2500 mosquito nets for surrounding rural communities. Some of the nets had been funded from people pledging donations to The Big Africa Cycle. A small team of Catholic nuns from India who help run a maternity clinic in the town were conducting the distribution.

    The sisters had arranged for myself and four Spaniards, also to assist in the distribution, to be lodged in a comfortable Guest House close to the town. “We are choosing this place because it is quiet and secure” remarked Sister Mary, in her Tamil twang. And so it seemed at first. My room and the four for the Spanish were located in a separate annex – a one storey building located beside a freshly cut lawn where local Kenyans come to eat and drink.

    After a peaceful first night the four of us joined the sisters the next day, journeying through beautiful rolling pastures and tea plantations towards the edge of the Nandi escarpment. Several local Kenyans were alongside us, one of which plays a significant and unfortunate role in this whole story.

    Ken, a local from Kapsabet, had been asked by an American well wisher over the Internet (someone with a vested interest in malaria who had donated $1000 to buy bed-nets)  to assist and observe in the distribution, as well as to collect and document what information he could about the incidence of malaria in the area around Kapsabet. For a man with qualifications and skills in IT it seemed a little strange, but Ken was educated, open, friendly and actively participated with an interest in the distribution. He had no camera and requested whether he could use some of my photos to forward to this American. Not a problem. I was willing to oblige. Monday passed and we all returned to our Guest House in the evening.

    Tuesday 5th July was a repeat. Breakfast early and off into the countryside with another 500 nets to distribute. Before leaving I’d given the key of my room to the guardian, a quiet young man who didn’t appear to speak any English. The floor was dirty and I gave him permission to enter and clean – nothing unusual there.

    The bed-net distribution finished early that day and we were back at the Guest House at 3pm. Ken said he would not be continuing with the distribution for the final two days as he needed to return to Eldoret, where his wife and children lived. I agreed he could take some of my photos as earlier requested, but to return to the Guest House at 4pm, after I had taken lunch with the Spanish.

    At 4pm I was back in my room, having received the key back from the guardian and noted the bed was made and the room clean. The Spanish left soon after to visit a nearby waterfall, but I decided to stay, partly through tiredness and partly because I’d told Ken he could come to take some photos. “Come and find me in room 3” I said on the phone when he arrived at the Guest House.

    He was still in my room 20 minutes later when I received a call from the Doctor at Nandi Hills Hospital. We had met and spoken the previous day about having the press covering a story about the bed-net distribution and my role in having cycled all the way from the UK. The Doctor was coordinating the press and now at 16.45 they were coming to the Guest House to conduct an interview.

    “Take your camera or laptop to show photos to the journalist”, suggested Ken before we left the room together and went to meet them at the entrance. It seemed a bit too much effort, for surely they would arrive with a photographer. I locked my door, put the key in my pocket and walked with Ken and the bicycle to the Guest House entrance, some 100 metres away. Ten minutes later a group of 5 of us, including Ken, were sat on a grassy area some 20 metres now from my room. For the next 30 minutes I talked about the hows and whys of riding a bicycle thousands of kilometers across a continent and my involvement with the bed-net distribtion.

    “Show them some of your photos”, Ken remarked again during this conversation. But no-one had brought any laptop or digital storage device so the matter was dropped. “How can we read more about the journey”, asked one of the journalists. I started to write the website down, but decided it would be more professional to hand them a card. So I dashed back to my room. And that is when I noticed the door open and everything gone.

    Who Dunnit?


    The shock at what took place between 1700-17.45 on Tuesday 5th July at the inaptly named ‘Steve Nice Guest House’ in Kapsabet, was joined by anger, disbelief and frustration at how the response and investigation was conducted.

    Theft and robbery is a common occurrence in Kenya, and perhaps one should not dwell too much on the loss of one’s valuables, but when action is not taken to incriminate those who are clearly guilty you feel justice must surely prevail. My spirits have been at an all-time low since the robbery. 

    It wasn’t just my room that had been opened with a spare key, but every other room. When the Spaniards returned an hour after the theft had taken place they too found their locked rooms had been opened and whatever valuables they had not taken with them to the waterfalls had been stolen too.

    What surprised me at first was the slowness of the management to respond. No-one came forward to offer an apology. Lips sealed. Not even a sign of shock. The guardian responsible for the keys stood like a deaf mute as I asked where he was when this took place and where his keys were. The owner’s son soon started covering for him, switched to the local dialect and when the police finally arrived all blame was pointed at Ken, saying he was present when the theft took place.

    “How well do you know this Ken character”? asked police and locals with an inquisitive interest in what was taking place on their turf. Of course when I said I’d met him the day before eye brows were raised. Even the Doctor came down to the Guest House and said Ken was where the blame needed to be pointed.

    Had I really been duped? Moments earlier I’d told journalists that I’d met so many people on this trip that I valued my judge of character to be very high. Could Ken really have tricked me somehow? There were some things that seemed odd. Why would a man involved with IT attach himself to a bed-net distribution organized by Catholic Missionaries? Why was he leaving that same day from Kapsabet?

    Ken, the guardian of the Guest House, the manager and assistant manager were taken suspect by the police. When I gave my statement along with the Spanish the next morning it was with the belief that Ken had been at the centre of this.

    The day passed. Another distribution of mosquito nets was taking place and I broke down in tears when the local chief asked me to introduce myself and why I was here. It has not been the only time I’ve cried in the past week.

    Later that day I heard the three Guest house employees had been released by the Police, but Ken was being held as a prime suspect. It was then I started to think about the whole day again. Ken had told me the waterfalls were not really worth going out of my way to see. It is part of the reason I let the Spanish go without me. And he’d also suggested showing the journalists my photos from the camera and laptop. This is at a time when the theft could still have been taking place. Not once during the moment I left the room with Ken and locked my door to when I returned 40 minutes later to find it open and robbed had Ken used his mobile phone. He had been alongside me all along.

    It was then that I realized that Ken was being framed by the police. A convenient scape-goat whilst the Guest house management were let off.

    This was an inside job. The spare keys had opened those doors and the questions needed to be directed to the guardian, where he was when the theft took place and where the keys were.

    I returned to the Police Station on Thursday, two days after the theft, and asked to speak with Ken alone. He confirmed what I had thought, and I apologized that I had not trusted my instincts about the guy. Whatever he may or may not have done in the past, this man was not guilty. An opportunist making a small sum of money from an American well-wisher who’d probably never before been in the country, yes, but a criminal tipping someone off to enter my room with spare keys, no.

    By this time I had lost whatever hope I’d ever had that the police were going to help me. Had someone at the Guest House paid the police off to have their 3 employees released and Ken used as a scapegoat? Quite possibly. I was wasting my time with the police, who told me they would ‘continue their investigation’.

    At this stage I naively believed that my embassy would come to the rescue, but when I vented my frustration about the police investigation to a Kenyan voice at the consular service, she sighed and apologized. “This is Kenya. The Police aren’t like those in your country.”

    The incompetence of the Police was confirmed to me by a Korean woman, eccentric to put it mildly, who has been in the country long enough to know how things work. She suggested I contact the Mayor. Along with his team of councilors and elders we descended on the Guest House the following day, where the manager attempted to make lies up about Ken and his whereabouts at the time. The Mayor and the councilors were convinced like me that this was an inside job. The management of Steve Nice was responsible and if these things weren’t brought forward the license of the establishment would be removed.

    Accompanying the Mayor and his entourage was an elderly man who remained silent during this gathering of people. “This man will help recover your things” vowed the Mayor. “We’ve worked with him before”. When I asked how this frail old man would physically recover the valuables I was told “He can work miracles. Trust him. Something will happen now”.

    Well that was over a week ago as I write this now. My hopes were raised for a short period over the weekend when an independent team of investigators travelled from Nakuru to conduct their own findings. They departed with enough evidence to return to Kapsabet, arrest and take these 3 Guest House suspects away unless items were returned. In the words of the Mayor I had been assured that by Tuesday of the following week (12th July) things would be brought forward. “They cried with us to be given until Tuesday” stressed the Mayor. Well Tuesday passed, the Mayor was in Nairobi all week and nothing happened. Merely talk and no action.

    As a back-drop to all the telephone calls, conversations and banging-my-head-against-the-wall moments when people say they will call be back but never do, I have been staying with the Catholic nuns in the mission since the theft. The thief hadn’t even left me with 10 shillings. It’s an odd, but calm and safe place to rest my head and I’ve been made to feel very welcome. “Don’t worry Peter. God will take care of everything” repeats Sister Mary with that characteristic south Indian head waggle I remember so fondly from the sub-continent. I wish I had such faith.

    Had the theft been all valuables except my hard-drive I probably would have got over it by now. Cameras and laptops can somehow be replaced. But as I told the police, the Mayor, the press and the management of the Guest House, this hard-drive is invaluable and I’m willing to pay a far higher reward to get it back than it can be sold for on a black market. Still nothing.

    The miracle worker, who might well be dubbed a ‘witch doctor’, was called a second time yesterday. Just like the week previously, he, the Mayor and his entourage and myself headed to the Guest House. The Guest House staff present were assembled and a traditional prayer was voiced loudly in Kalenjin. At one stage he stripped to reveal a bony torso before pacing back and forwards thrashing a leafed twig through the air. I tried to keep a straight face.  ‘Something will come from this weekend” assured Ken, who was present as well. He told me the same thing a week previously.

    I’m slowly coming to the realization, almost 2 weeks on, that what has happened happened. And worryingly the ease and speed with which it took place whilst I was metres away is a reminder that it could have happened in many other places. Just as I am here I’d be the helpless mzungu naively expecting justice to prevail, as any other westerner who has grown up in a World where law and order have some level of merit might do.

    Continuing the Journey


    I never planned nor wanted other people to somehow fund my trip, as I’ve seen others do from long-term journeys. But after almost 2 years on the road things are a bit desperate on the budget-for-the-trip side of things. If I’m to continue to blog, photograph and document the journey to its conclusion then finding a replacement laptop and camera is essential. Photography has always been integral to the trip.

    So if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog  – newcomer to the adventure or a follower from the beginning, I’m asking you to contribute, if you can, something towards covering the cost of the stolen items. It is why you see this paypal donate button here.

    As for anyone actually on the road doing something of a similar nature to me, my message is BACKUP BACKUP BACKUP – you cannot predict when a thief will strike, but you can plan when to backup your invaluable and irreplaceable photos. I wish I had done so in Kampala when I had the chance. 

    Something may miraculously appear in the coming days and weeks, but I’ve pretty much exhausted my efforts here. I need to get back on the road. One day I might look back philosophically about what has happened here in a small town in western Kenya, but  that time has not yet come.  

  • Around Mt Elgon July 1st, 2011

    “After your first day of cycling, one dream is inevitable.  A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go.  You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow. “ (H G Wells)

    Leaving busy highways is always a relief on a bicycle. When you hear your own tyres rolling over tarmac rather than the continuous drone of engines and exhaust pipes it’s one good measure of a cycle-friendly road.

    In my last post I described the road from Kampala-Jinja as being one of the worst  I’ve cycled on in Africa. Now I’m going to say something about one of the best roads. This one involves mountains, (the best always do) waterfalls, forests,  lots or smiling children, almost zero traffic and villages free from the garish colours of corporate advertising I’ve seen so much in Uganda.

    Colourful characters: Ugandan school children

    This road runs east from the town of Mbale and loops over the northern slopes of Mt Elgon (4321m), Uganda’s second highest mountain, It is an obvious route choice for anyone travelling in eastern Uganda and wanting to see some of the country’s best scenery.

    Sipi Falls, a series of three waterfalls, is the main draw-card to this region. I was told the place would be crawling with tourists, but unless I was staying in the wrong place it appeared I was about the only foreigner enjoying the sublime views from the porch of my tent. It’s the first time I’ve camped in Uganda and campsites don’t come much more scenic than Moses’ Campsite in the village of  Sipi (take note cycle tourers).

    Sipi falls

    Monkey at camp

    Moses' campsite: Sipi

    Around Sipi: Eastern Uganda

    The tarmac stopped beyond Sipi, but the scenery remained spectacular as a traffic-free track wound its way around the green fertile foothills of Mt Elgon towards the Kenyan border. If the reaction of children is any measure of how many Mzungus come out this way it’s fair to say this far eastern region of Uganda sees far fewer than other places I’ve come through.

    Climbing away from Sipi

    Through Mt Elgon National Park

    Mt Elgon National Park

    Village life

    Off to School

    Young boys: Eastern Uganda

    At some point as I was heading towards the Kenyan border it dawned on me that with only several dollars worth of Ugandan Shillings left in my wallet I didn’t have enough money to pay for a Kenyan visa. I needed $25, which I didn’t have. How I hadn’t thought and planned for this I’m not sure. Now I was faced with the decision of either leaving my bike in a village and waiting for transport back to Mbale to use a bank, or continuing to the Kenyan border and hoping the immigration officer would be friendly enough to allow me to take a bus into the first town in Kenya. I opted for the latter.

    Had this been any number of border crossings in west or central Africa I feel the demand for a bribe of sorts would have been on the agenda. But not here. The only concern after leaving my bike at the immigration post was surviving the mini-bus journey on a treacherously slippy track between the border and the town of Kitale.

    Well that’s where I am now, after having found a bank, returned to the border to pay for a visa and cycled back here. Next week I’m off to distribute a few thousand mosquito nets. Never too late to donate a few.

    Goodbye Uganda