23 April, 1999
I think there is
a recessive gene that controls driving. Maybe it mutated from the chariot
or the gene that compelled Vikings to carve cool looking heads on the
front of their ships and challenge Vikings from the next village to a
Greenland drag race. Fortunately for most people the gene doesn’t cause
any mischief. But ever since my brother beat me in the Volkswagen Bug
Championship of Our Front Yard, I’ve felt the need to find the line.
The line. That sweet poetry of speed and curve that defines the essence
of every corner. Outside, inside, outside, and accelerate smoothly through.
A sane person encountering Nairobi traffic clenches the wheel and sweats
through the anarchy. But for we few, the gene fires off tiny reverberations
of pure pleasure to the cerebral cortex – traffic anarchy, no rules – “thank
my lucky stars, today I drive the line”. Pity us.
Karen Blixen's house of Out of Africa fame
Breaking dawn at Lake Baringo
Equiping in Nairobi
John flew back to civilization leaving Alex and I to regroup and re-equip for
the next stage, a dog leg into northern Kenya and Uganda. I checked the
vehicle into CMC LandRover in Nairobi – whose name I mention specifically
because they deserve the award for most spectacular sheer incompetence
in sub-saharan Africa. New shock mounts and a winch cable re-attachment
would take a few hours in North America – it took 2.5 days. We consoled
ourselves with cheap breakfasts at the Nairobi Hard Rock Café, expensive
dinners at Trattoria, and long talks about women. There was a silver lining
though. Our tardy departure allowed us to meet Kevin Temple, a young, clean
cut Canadian backpacker with good manners. He was interested in accompanying
us to Uganda so we subjected him to rigorous questioning to ensure that
he would be an appropriate travel companion.
“Will you pay for your share of the gas?”
We finally escaped the pervasive
ineptitude of CMC Land Rover (once again, that’s CMC Land Rover) late
Wednesday afternoon, and headed north. First climbing to 2700m through
the cool lushness of the Rift Valley escarpment, then plunging into the
valley floor, past Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru to Lake Baringo – a
shallow soda lake sprawling into the arid scrub. We’d read in the Lonely
Planet that hippos occasionally wandered through the campsite but were
still shocked to have one amble contentedly right past the Land Rover
while we paid our camping fees.
In case you didn’t know, hippos are by far the most lethal of
all the African animals. You wouldn’t think so to look at one. Compared
with the scaly evil of a crocodile or the lithe prowess of the big cats,
the water cow seems like a big ol’ inflatable water toy. But every year
scores of people are disemboweled by the hippo’s two, long tusk-like inner
teeth. If you get between a hippo and the water, or if a boat seems to
be a threat, they charge suddenly and CHOMP. Of course I’d relayed all
this information in vivid colour to my two travel companions prior to arriving
at the campsite. After all there’s nothing finer than watching a greenhorn
visibly pale at possible danger. But even I was pretty nervous driving
into the site.
Sure enough. Near the end of dinner
I heard the distinct sound of a hippo grazing (imagine the sound of three
or five cows tearing grass up to chew). I casually mentioned to Alex
and Kevin that there was a hippo “right over there to the left”. Alex
shone his flashlight through the dimly starlit night. “There’s no hippo!
There’s just a tree and that big boulder.” “Ahh Alex, the boulder IS
the hippo.” “Sweet Mother of Pearl” (or words to that effect).
I zipped up in my tent early while
Alex and Kevin lingered over the campfire. Evidently another hippo circled
around the campsite and grazed ominously close to the tents. It was so
large and we were so obviously between it and the water that the guys
decided to calmly lock themselves in the Land Rover - abandoning me to
my slumbering fate. Obviously I’ve got to work on a better passenger
Dawn broke in a rosy blaze over the
lake and brought with it a hundred birds of several dozen species. It
was a nice way to start the day. We rooted up a few stale slices of bread
and became the avian café - “Hundreds of satisfied customers”. We cut
across northern Kenya up into the highlands, through Eldoret and on to
the Ugandan border. I talked Stanley (the name of the Land Rover) into
yet another country with no Carnet de Passage. Hooray for fluent Swahili!
The British High Commission has labeled the road from the Ugandan border to
Jinja as The Most Dangerous Road in East Africa. It is a highly travelled artery
to the capital, Kampala, and is crowded with lorrys, busses, cars, bicyclists,
pedestrians, and matatus (mini-vans crammed with up to 20 passengers). All
this traffic threads through battered pavement pocked with axle deep potholes
and eroded edges. In some places the road is only 1.5 lanes wide. Trucks barge
back and forth across both lanes with impunity, seeking the smoothest route.
So driving is like Russian roulette - sooner or later you will either run out
of space on the road or be run off the road. Naturally I was delighted.
Pressing forward at 120kph we dodged
onto the shoulder to avoid swerving trucks, threaded between cyclists
and oncoming traffic with inches to spare, abandoned our lane completely
to drive through neighboring fields, and passed snail slow lorries around
blind corners. Alex had a death grip on the dash and Kevin emitted periodic
yelps from the rear seat. It’s hard on passengers when you have a dominant
Despite its chaotic roads, Uganda
has been one of the bright lights in East Africa. The country is struggling
to shed the bloody image earned while the infamous Idi Amin was in power.
Civil wars and political assassinations marred several subsequent governments – but
in 1986, Yowri Museveni led the hopelessly outnumbered National Resistance
Army to a brilliant victory and captured the capital city of Kampala.
He has proven to be a remarkably pragmatic leader and won a majority
representation in two open elections. Until recently he was the darling
of the IMF, however, recent allegations of creeping corruption and his
active support of the rebels in Congo have scuffed some of his shine.
The Bwindi park massacre has also been a major PR nightmare at a time
when the country needs every dollar of tourism it can get. Only time
will tell if the country can regain its positive momentum.
Bujagali Falls north of Jinja - the source of the White
Baby monkeys love suger - then they shred the Economist
Alex and Kevin at the top of Mount Longonot
Uganda was known as the Pearl of
Africa during the colonial era, and it was easy to see why as we drove
west through the rolling hills of tea estates and verdant forest. Fertile
soil and twice annual rains allow several crops each year. We wound through
the hills to Jinja on the shore of Lake Victoria – the source of the
White Nile. Our campsite just north of town was set into a terrace on
the steep banks overlooking the Bujagali Falls. The crude showers have
no doors and were built right on the lip of the bank, a hundred meters
above the water. No doors and cold water – but probably the best shower
view in the world with the White Nile foaming over the Bujagali rapids
just below. We ate a four course camp dinner and then built a campfire
under a carpet of stars. Philosophical discussions led to a reading of
the first three chapters of Ecclesiasties. “Meaningless! Meaningless!
Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does man gain from
all his labour at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and
generations go, but the earth remains forever…” “A man can do nothing
better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This
too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat of
find enjoyment?” Africa does provoke introspection. It is so far outside
the normal boundaries of experience.
After reading at length about the Ugandan “economic turnaround
miracle” I was disappointed in Kampala. Evidently a miracle is a much broader
category than I thought. Even though Nairobi is decaying it still beats
out its Ugandan counterpart. Kampala retains some of its colonial charm – broad
thoroughfares with parks, monuments, and tree dotted curbs. But most of
the shops have fractured into stalls with a dizzying array of crude signs.
There are few window displays, leaving long stretches of faceless streetfront.
Gas is $1 per litre, which keeps private vehicles to a minimum, but we
passed an arena-sized lot with a swarm of hundreds of matatus. Traffic
strains through the city against a few feeble lights.
John Hunwick is the Australian owner
of Backpackers, the hostel where we set up camp. He doubles as the local
police commissioner and had a soft spot for abused kids. Five year old
Nikita bowled into the room as he was checking us in and he corralled
her for a few seconds. “This is Nikita. She was sent to the city by her
mum to live with her aunt so that she could go to school. But the aunt
decided that this little sweetie should do chores for half days to earn
her keep. Problem is, the aunt has quite a temper. A few weeks ago Nikita
spilled some porridge and to teach her a lesson the aunt burned her cheeks
and back with some hot coals. You can see the scars right there. I was
told about it and got her out of there. It’s been a few weeks, the burns
are healing nicely, and she’s just starting to show her personality.
She’s quite a little scamp.” Nikita wiggled away and buzzed about a bit
before zooming into the next room. “It’s interesting really”, continued
John. “You should see the aunt. Oh she’s a looker, a gorgeous professional
African woman, but a heckofa temper. I don’t know how long I’ll be able
to keep Nikita out of there, but I’ll keep trying!”
We spent a few days in Kampala, working
on journals, shooting pool, and watching hours of WWF on satellite TV
(its huge in Africa). John turned out to be an interesting guy. When
the Rwandan genocide engulfed the country he sold his beach house in
Australia raising $60,000 to finance his own personal rescue missions.
On one trip they went to a mission school and found 6 surviving kids
amongst the bodies of 4,000. The school was on a narrow peninsula and
the Hutu militia simply formed a line across it and waded in with machetes. “I
get CNN on satellite here and after a week of mass killings there was
still absolutely nothing on the world news. I got so mad I wrote the
rudest letter of my life – the next day the CNN correspondent from Nairobi
flew here and I took him to see the slaughter myself.” (Sadly that’s
not an isolated news accident. Right now there are over 1 million recently
displaced refugees in Angola from the re-started civil war – surpassing
the number of Kosovar Albanian refugees – yet in the three days we watched
CNN, there wasn’t a single minute of footage.)
The Bwindi massacre had dampened
our enthusiasm to see the mountain gorillas, and there had been isolated
terrorist killings in northwest Uganda by other radical extremists. With
Alex’s time running out we decided to play it safe and visit the “tranquil
beauty” of the Sese islands. It turned out to be a long day even by African
Island Retreat that was no Treat
Laundry that had been left for washing the day prior had to
be retrieved from the rinse tub due to the washer woman’s procrastination.
It hung sopping inside the truck, leaking into our gear. Four wrong turns
left little time for lunch as we pushed to make the 4pm ferry… only to
find it parked – no runs on Sunday.
We forged ahead leaving the truck
at the local police station, hiring a dugout canoe to take us across
Lake Victoria, and finally renting a pick-up truck at a ridiculous price
(no bus on Sunday) to take us the three hours to the camp. Tired, dispirited,
and much lighter in the wallet, we bounced into the gathering dusk – headlights
boring into the jungle tunnel. A wounded lorry loomed out of the gloom
like a ghost and we passed it with an inch to spare. The damp air was
almost too cold. Then, suddenly, we surfaced on the island’s mountain
spine and the overwhelming African stars rushed in like a warm comforter.
A thousand fireflies sparkled like rhinestones and fishing boat lamps
shone like a string of glowing pearls far in the bay below. It was a
typically African moment and it warmed us through the damp dark arrival
to crude huts. I fell asleep content amidst the scent of mildewed thatch.
Despite the superlatives in Lonely
Plant, Hornbill campsite turned out to be a real disappointment. Breakfast
dawned with scant food and we had to make do with chapati rolls of raw
cabbage and onion. It rained till 2pm and we sat doing crossword puzzles,
tinged with vague indigestion. As soon as the rain broke we walked around
the beach to the other “resort” for some food. Their menu stretched to
two items; fish, chips. But, they also had an old game of Monopoly. It
was the single most enjoyable Monopoly game I’ve ever played. We yelled,
pounded the table, muttered insults, and laughed so hard we cried – much
to the enjoyment of the staff. They brought candles so we could keep
playing when it got dark. Unbelievably the three of us played a single
game for five hours – and finally had to call it in a draw (Alex claims
victory based on a higher aggregate value of property and cash – typical
lawyer). We walked back to our camp in the shimmer of a quarter moon.
There were seven tourists on the
island and all seven of us decided to beat a retreat by the second day.
We stood in the pre-dawn rain to catch the rickety island bus and after
a short (free) ferry ride reclaimed the trusty Stanley. The other four
mzungus (white people) asked if they might get a ride back to Kampala
with us, so we crammed Bonnie and Jonathan into the back with Alex and
Kevin, Julie and Josie the two French-Canadian girls double teamed the
front passenger seat. A real mzungu matatu!
Despite its moments of unexpected
delight, Uganda seemed to have limited appeal, so we headed back toward
Kenya. Another night at Jinja, a knuckle biting transit to the border,
and back into the Rift Valley. We spent Alex’s last night at Fisherman’s
camp on the shore of Lake Naivasha. Towering acacia trees, acres of luxuriant
lawn, and more grazing hippos made it a memorable evening. We rewound
the tape in the video camera and spent over an hour re-living the experiences
of the past five weeks.
Longonot is an extinct volcano with a massive crater that towers
several thousand meters above the valley floor. We rose leisurely on Thursday
morning and prepared to assault the summit. As a student at Rift Valley
Academy boarding school I would wake up each morning and see the mountain
from my window. It was a fixture of my high school years, and I'd saved
it as a last experience for Alex’s final day. I’d climbed it with some
friends and jogged around the crater rim in a mere 45 minutes – back in
my high school days. This time I gasped up to the crater rim. We clambered
around the edge to the peak, 3000m altitude, and had a picnic lunch in
the afternoon sun. The forested crater floor stretched several kilometres
in diameter far below. Jets of steam streamed from isolated vents in the
old volcanic walls. Continued around the rim, about 10km, and then forced
my cream puff body back down the steep mountain flank.
Tired but elated, we wound up Lower
Rd to the Nairobi highway to take Alex to his winged transport. I was
sorry to see him go, and he was sorry to leave. Travel is sweet sorrow
that way. You meet so many interesting people, share incredible experiences,
and then in the blink of an eye you part again. We said goodbye at the
KLM counter and I’d swear that Alex’s eyes were watery – lawyer or no
lawyer. Kevin had decided to stay on and travel back south with me for
awhile, so I’d left a friend but made another.
There's no sense in denying it since
its perfectly obvious to anyone who spends any length of time with me
- I'm an adrenaline junkie. Not the kind who wears ragged jeans and sports
a lizard tattoo, a dude who makes a lifestyle of skateboarding or skydiving
or blading. More of an "experiencer", jumping into new situations
simply for the feel of it. Maybe "explorer" sums it up better.
Certainly I've done my share of bungee jumping, rock climbing, skydiving,
blading, whitewater, etc - but usually only once or twice. Once it's
been done, it's done. Mine is the perfect personality for an accomplisher.
An opportunity presents itself and while most people stop to weigh the
available resources against the expected demands, I rush in - usually
to find myself hedged in by formidable challenges. But that's where I'm
at my best, under pressure. It's an insidious personality flaw if you
manage to consistently cheat the odds. And it's not really fair if you're
responsible for others. But when teamed with a similar free spirit the
results can be interesting. And Kevin turned out to be nitro to my glycerin.
We wandered from Upper Hill campsite into downtown
Nairobi on Friday. We'd dropped Alex off the night before
and decided to kill a day in civilization before resuming
the trip. Three hours of web browsing, a proper cup of
coffee at the Hilton, and a movie at a real theatre restored
our sense of residual decadence. The next day I dragged
Kevin north to Nakuru to visit Chris Franz - one of my
oldest friends. Chris and I had gone to boarding school
and university together, and qualified for our aircraft
mechanic license at the same time. I had gone into business
and he had become a pastor and then a missionary. Funny
how a university degree seems to fade quickly into irrelevance.
It was a great weekend. Lots of catching
up, a real bed to sleep in, and on Sunday we were guests of honor at
the African church where Chris was preaching. I'd had years of childhood
experience but Kevin was a bit surprised when we were ushered to our
special seats at the front. It's hard to adjust to being a spectacle
- especially when you are an innocuous Canadian. The singing was spectacular,
the sermon gripping, and at the end the pastor asked all three of us
to stand at the door and greet each person as they left. A thousand people
filed by and we shook hands with aching smiles, "God bless you.
Thank you. Thanks. God bless. Yes. Many thanks. Bye. Thank you. Bless
you…" We were awed by the responsibility and later confessed to
feeling a bit unworthy of the honor.
Africa is like that. You arrive and
are instantly a member of the super-rich – your anonymity betrayed by
the color of your skin. People make assumptions. You are loved as a giver
of gifts, misled by scammers, reviled for a history you didn't condone,
envied by the thwarted ambitious, and unwittingly you mock their means
with casual purchases. It's easy to develop a subconscious arrogance
because unquestionably you are more knowledgeable and richer. That prick
of discomfort at the church was comforting in a way - to know that it
was unearned respect - it wasn't automatically due.
We left the warmth of Chris' hospitality
on Monday afternoon and I made a mental note to get back more often.
Back to the rush and bustle of Nairobi. Back to the cloying embrace of
CMC LandRover. Back to financial uncertainty. In typical Willnerian fashion
I'd recklessly purchased enough gear and gadgets for a small army - and
spent into as many adventures as I could. By late April I was stranded
in Nairobi with no money and no way home. Dad had been left in charge
of my bank account, which I'd plundered from foreign ATMs, and he was
sending e-mails of modulated panic asking how on earth I intended to
finish the trip. I really hadn't paid much attention. I'd put my beloved
Mercedes up for sale a few months prior and spent as though I'd have
more money shortly - it hadn't sold and I was broke.
So I sold my satellite phone. The
day after I got to Nairobi, Kevin and I went out to the airport and systematically
trolled the mission and charter outfits till we found a hot lead. The
manager of the pilots club had been driving his Range Rover in Tsavo
game park the month previous and had been attacked by an elephant. Two
tires were punctured, the rear spring broken, and a hole was gored through
the right rear quarter panel. Fortunately there was another vehicle around,
otherwise he would have been in a sticky situation. He decided there
and then that he had to buy some "insurance" for peace of mind.
And a few weeks later I walked into his office with a sparkling new Iridium
satellite phone. Taking stock of the situation I decided that peace of
mind was worth $3800 (my original investment plus a modest profit) and
he paid cash without a quibble.
I believe you can begin to see my
dilemma. I plunge into adventure, get hemmed in by a challenge like "no
money", and find a trap door to dodge free. It obviously works for
me. So when Kevin and I hatched the plan to pass ourselves off as journalists
to interview the rebel generals in Congo and file the story with Reuters
- it seemed perfectly feasible. We dropped by the Canadian High Commission
to file an itinerary - so they could find out where we went missing in
case of accident. The Canadian woman, who didn't know which coast Vancouver
was on (true), convinced us that we needed a Letter of Introduction to
get into Rwanda (not true) for which we had to pay $30. It made me proud
to be half American. We had to struggle for another few days to get out
of CMC LandRover's web of incompetence (their unofficial motto should
be, "High quality ineptitude doesn't just happen, it takes hard
work!") Finally on Thursday we headed south on our greatest adventure
This journal is ridiculously late,
but shortly after returning to Nairobi, Kevin and I re-entered the semi-civilization
of mid-Africa where Internet access is sparse and expensive. I’d expected
a quick transit back to southern Africa. What we got was the most incredible
set of adventures yet! More to come soon.