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African Journey

Malcolm Jarrett sends in this account from foreign parts and says that he hopes to be back on the Hill for Christmas.

After all attempts to arrange a holiday to coincide with the Pyrenees trip had failed due to my work in Saudi Arabia, I decided to visit East Africa, as it is only 200 miles from where I am working.  My employers paid all my air fares and several other friends were also visiting Kenya, as I intended to do, but I received a note from a friend suggesting that I should meet him in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where I was due to change planes.  He was passing through on his way to Nairobi from Cairo.

From reading the press, and from hearsay, Ethiopia to be in a state of turmoil and closed to visitors from my little grey hole in the desert.  It was not possible to get a yellow fever jab or even a visa so on arrival at Addis, I fully expected to be told to go on to Nairobi by air.  Even more intimidating were the hordes of Chinese in their flat ‘ats and grey suits.  No place for wealthy capitalists, I thought!  So for half an hour, I tried to make one of the gentlemen smile.  Not a muscle twitched.  Obviously they knew the evils of smiling at white devils and paper tigers.  Eventually I reached the head of the queue where my wad of sterling banknotes eliminated any problems of entry.  Within half an hour I was out of the airport, which subsequently became something of a record.

Immediately, I met my friend, Ian Coward, a college friend and occasional Belfry visitor and we hitched a lift into central Addis.  Despite military government, the city seems to work as well as any other although there are massive numbers of beggars and lepers in the streets.  After two days we were ready to set off for Nairobi.  Catching a bus in Addis is not too easy.  The stock answer to any question is "The bus goes now" and timing can be a problem as some Ethiopians work to a clock six hours different from local time.

Eventually we left the dank city at dawn and drove south to the town of Dilla.  Apart from two brief checks there was still no sign of tension and soon we were travelling through Ethiopia's lake country, part of the rift valley system. There are still some volcanic springs in the area although we did not have time to visit them.

From Dilla we caught a bus to Vabella, another 210 km south and the limit of the regular bus service. We got there in the early afternoon and decided that there was time to travel further.  We found the driver of a truck going south, but he didn't seem to know if he was going that day or the next.  Ian and I spent some time taking photographs of local children and then to our surprise, the truck went racing out of the village square.  We then heard it stop and found it at a store loading maize. The driver seemed to be totally uninterested to all around him.  This we later ascribed to a local drug, which seems to impart a sense of timelessness to those who chew this leaf.  Eventually, and for no obvious reason, the truck left.  The roads deteriorated now and there was no more tarmac although the road had been graded in preparation for tarmac laying.

A further 100 km brought us to Mega, a small hill town.  Gradually, the countryside was becoming less cultivated and termite hills became more common together with some small bush fauna.  After an overnight stop at Mega, the truck driver offered us a lift to Hidi. This village did not appear on the map and few people knew where it was.  We accepted the lift as the bus was not due for three days and continued south in the company of a goat and five small children.  The road got steadily worse and unfortunately the goat’s nerves could not stand the vibration, so it made a nasty mess of somebody’s shoe.  Seeing how uninhibited the goat was, one of the small children let fly.  This started quite an argument between the children's mothers, but neither child nor goat seemed very moved.

Hidi was in the throes of market day.  The market seemed to serve a social function more than anything else.  It can't have had much business, as everybody was selling each other the same things.  People carried spears everywhere and wore simple blankets.  I had my first fresh milk for four months - straight from the camel very good too!  We also tried an evil brew made from coffee beans fried in butter and floated on warm milk. This is, apparently, brewed for various pagan ceremonies but I dread to think what they might be.  We slept in the truck that night, to the sound of ritual dancing which was interrupted by the return of our travelling companion much the worse for chewing 'chat' (the leaf mentioned earlier) and drinking tej (honey beer).  Hidi was very pleasant, but still a long way off the main road and mil from the Kenya border.  Our truck driver seemed uncertain about where he was going and his sense of time had now vanished completely.

The day after our arrival at Hidi, a Toyota truck arrived.  This was quite an event for Hidi - two trucks within twenty four hours!  What was even better was that the Toyota was returning immediately to Moyale.  Was this our chance to get to the Kenyan border, we wondered?  Our hopes flagged again when so many people leapt aboard that the truck could not move. Then our original driver decided that he, too, would go to Moyale - mainly because there was nowhere else he could get fuel.  Ten minutes later, he scrambled into the cab and raced off across the village 'square'. We chased after him, only to find that he had decided to take tea at a different house.  Another ten minutes elapsed, followed by another mad dash across the village.  Ian and I decided to get back on our truck anyway and this was just as well because the next time he drove off it was on the road to Moyale - for two minutes. Yet again we stopped, and out came the driver who held some sort of ballot (based on how much cash rather than how many hands) to decide finally where we were going.  Eventually, Moyale was chosen and off we went to the border.

We reached the border in mid afternoon and passed through into Kenya fairly quickly.  Immediately after changing our money, we had the pleasant surprise of finding out that all the beer in Kenya has a government price control.  This was excellent news, so off we went to sample 'Tusher' lager.  Kenyan beer is an interesting phenomenon.  Quite often we had it so cold that the barman had to search for a bottle that was still liquid.  Pouring Tusher is a real art.  Even the best pour can result in a Watney Factor (ratio of head to liquid) of unity, and a real 'barmaid's pour' can achieve a frightening Watney Factor of nearly infinity!  Indeed, whilst experimenting with ways of eliminating gas by shaking in an exclusive Nairobi hotel, a large proportion of a half litre bottle scattered the barmen at a range of six feet.  Eliminating any gas ingested, in a civilised manner, is very difficult.  Quite often towards midnight, the unwitting drinker opens his mouth to expound on some topic, only to release a fortissimo belch.

Moyale had only one bar, as it was predominantly a Muslim town.  Fortunately we met a customs officer who offered us his room, so we went to bed - Ian under the mosquito net and myself on the concrete floor.  As Ian's luck would have it, this was the only place where we encountered mosquitoes.  Whilst he slept peacefully, I lay in terror while the little malarial kamikaze pilots dug into me with their proboscis.  Nightmares of 'O' level biology came to my mind, and for the next few days I was very thorough in taking my malaria tablets.

The Kenyan side of Moyale seemed to have many trucks, and after a short search we found a land rover going to Isiolo, nearly into Nairobi and well onto tarmac roads.  Unfortunately, he disappeared and we opted for a lift on a truck full of empty oil drums.  In the general haste to board the truck I forgot my camera.  After several days without a wash, the smell of diesel fuel made a pleasant change.

After losing my camera, I should have realised that it was not going to be a good day, and sure enough, things rapidly deteriorated.  The ageing Ford truck stopped several times; stricken by asthma and eventually it spent more time stationary than mobile.  The driver realised that all was not well and headed for the village of Soldo (sorry, Sololo - Ed.).  Many of his customers opted to remain on the main road and whilst they were dismounting, our land rover sped past on its way to Isiolo!  The truck got within sight of Sololo and expired.

By this time it occurred to Ian and I that neither of us mew anything about the carburetion of diesel engines.  The Kenyans attempted a number of curious stunts some falling little short of religion in their execution. Three supercilious whites standing watching didn't help.  Eventually, some time after it became obvious, they realised that the fuel filter was blocked, and got us back on the road.  Most of the travellers had lost interest by now, and vanished into the village, so we had a fairly quiet trip to Marsabit.  From Marsabit to Isiolo we got a lift in a government land rover. From Isiolo to Nanyuki we travelled by taxi and then arranged another taxi to Nairobi. Just South of Nanyuki we crossed the equator in heavily overcast conditions.  The taxi drivers are only supposed to take six passengers but at nightfall they completely flout the regulations.  By some sort of instinct the taxis meet in garages and we transferred to other taxis, all for an inclusive fare.  Eventually we reached Nairobi with 13 people in a Peugeot 404 - and a chicken.  The chicken arrived totally exhausted and collapsed in a heap asking to be curried.

So.  We had made it in exactly the time budgeted.  Nairobi looked exquisite.  After four months in Saudi Arabia, anywhere that offers fish and chips, beer and ham sandwiches is heaven.  The next day, we met two friends within two minutes of our previously agreed time and, along with two otters, decided to go south to Tanzania to see the Serengeti Game Park and the Ngoro Ngoro crater.

We travelled by bus down to Arusha at which place we fortunately met an Australian who was drilling for water near Lake Victoria.  He offered us a lift through the game park, past the Ngoro Ngoro crater and down Lake Victoria in exchange for a few beers.

Next day we set off for Serengeti, where we had a fine time in the reserve, seeing many animals and finally the Ngoro Ngoro crater.  This crater is of massive size and I guess big enough to hold Birmingham.  The Tanzanian government runs tourist hotels which cost £15 a night and have excellent views and cuisine. Naturally, we didn't stay at them, but we used their bars as there was still price controlled beer!


We tried to stop the night at a lodge, but they had never seen B.E.C. type people.  They found it impossible to see why we ate nothing; drank several pounds worth of beer and refused to pay a pound each to camp.  As the police post was miles away, they couldn't do much and left us alone.  Next day, we carried on our pub crawl, occasionally noticing wild animals and getting lost, arriving late at night at Mwanza, a town well endowed with bars and situated on the South Eastern edge of La Victoria.  Here, we reluctantly parted company with our Australian friend.

After two days in Mwanza, I had to rush back to Arusha in order to fly back to work.  (Another reason being that Kenyan beer is cheaper) "Only 12 hours" said the Asian travel agent - rubbing his hands as he took the money.  So it might have been if the bus hadn't broken it's suspension at 1 a.m.  Fortunately another bus came along with a spare part and some string and the problem was solved within two and a half hours.  We spent this time speculating on whether the driver would be crushed to death when the jack collapsed (he wasn’t).  At last after twenty three hours and a few more bits of we arrived back in Arusha.

This bus journey had much in common with others East Africa.  The driver often went for a spin around town before leaving.  In one town, the locals derived much pleasure in seeing two of us chasing a bus down the high street.  They all knew it had only gone to re-fuel!

So there we were back in Arusha. I got another night bus to Nairobi, and the others went off to the coast.  I arrived back in Nairobi at 7 a.m. after a two and a half hour customs stop. Despite what African people said to me, they did seen to favour me at customs posts - or was it the subtle smell from my rucsac?  I decided to spend my last night of freedom in a luxury hotel and I arrived fresh from the bus looking as if I had been down Manor Farm in the digging days. Next day I got up at 5.45 a.m. and went to Nairobi airport only to find that Ethiopian Airlines had sent too small a plane!  So here I sit, at their expense, in an international hotel.  Tomorrow I have another night in Addis and eventually I might get back to Saudi Arabia, but that could well be another story!

Editor's Note:     Malcolm says that he will be at Box 42, Kharis Mushayt, Saudi Arabia until December 15th.  As far as the membership list is concerned, his Birmingham address is best for the time being.