The Unknown God: The Journey Back Through Europe, Part One.

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Our daughter, Laura, drinking in the sunset, Adriatic Coast.

 

Once happily reunited with Mr. Baggins in Athens, we pointed all four of our noses briefly back in the direction of Africa and headed for the absolute southernmost point of mainland Europe – the remote Mani Lighthouse on the sole of the Pelepponese Peninsula.

 

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The road to the southern cliff-edge of Europe!

 

Crossing the narrow Corinth Isthmus, we wildcamped next to a dried-out river bed south of Tripoli before arriving, next day, at the car park of our destination.  While Laura sunbathed/swam at a secluded cove, Lesley and I tramped the two kilometres along the sun-drenched path to the Lighthouse at the very cliff-end of Europe.  We cooled off in celebration afterwards by rejoining Laura and swimming together in the aquamarine waters of the Ionian Sea.  Wonderful!

 

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That’s me in the water: Africa is a long swim south!

 

We camped five more nights in Greece; taking in Delphi, the incredible rock-perched monasteries of Meteora, ancient Berea (near where Alexander the Great was proclaimed king in the 4th century BC) ….  Our last night in Greece, just south of Philippi, we wildcamped on the beach, before heading into Bulgaria.

 

 

The beautifully scenic countries of Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia followed in rather quick succession.

 

 

Possibly the best campsite in all these countries was the family-run camp on the River Drina, one mile south of the Bosnian village of Patkovina on the M-20 road.  This is the first privately-run campsite in the country since the 1992-95 Bosnian war – possibly the most devastating conflict in Europe since WW2.

The Adriatic Coastal road is a gentler, longer version of Italy’s spectacular Amalfi Coast.  One evening, we pulled into a secluded, tiny seaside wharf in Croatia and wildcamped next to a German camper van and an Austrian Audi A4 roof-tenter!  We swam in the Adriatic Sea, evening and morning, as an alternative shower 😁.

 

 

Exactly one year and 37,819 miles after leaving Fleetwood, we landed in northeastern Italy; on our way to a long-planned visit to Tarvisio, the outstandingly beautiful mountain village home of Alessia, a great Italian exchange student who lived with us for a year three years ago.  Becky and Sam flew into Venice to join us for a long weekend altogether.

 

 

Allie, Matteo and Allie’s parents, Fluvio and Paula, gave us an incredibly warm welcome.  Wonderful people 😁.  We visited Lake Garda, Venice and Lake Bled in Croatia … and ate some wonderful pizzas!  Our last day with our adopted Italian family was a Sunday.  Our chef son, Sam, and Lesley cooked a traditional beef roast lunch for nine (complete with horseradish sauce, Yorkshire Puddings, gravy, cauliflower cheese, butter-glazed carrots, etc etc).  Italy has not seen the like!

 

Looking back on this first part of our European journey home, if we had to wait ten days anywhere for Mr. Baggins to arrive from Alexandria, then Athens was a good place to do it.  We wandered down the crowded streets and up the tucked-away alleys.  We sampled moussaka, falafel, feta cheese and the Greek salads.  We sauntered past the Acropolis, strolled through the gardens of the Areopagus, watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, visited the marinas of Piraeus, and ambled under Hadrian’s Arch.  [Hadrian was the 14th Roman emperor and, unlike most Roman emperors, loved to travel throughout his vast empire.  Perhaps he is most famous, though, for the construction of Hadrian’s Wall at the northernmost boundary of his empire – a 73-mile long wall built to keep the ‘Barbarian’ Scots at bay!  Less known, maybe, is that Hadrian also built a temple to Jupiter on top of the ruins of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.  The enraged Jews of Judea rebelled against Rome in what became known as Bar Kokhba’s Revolt.  The ensuing war saw 580,000 Jews killed and the banning of the practice of Judaism throughout Hadrian’s empire.  So devastated were Jewish communities that some historians refer to what happened as ‘genocide’.  Makes one reflect on later events in European history ….]

At one point, Lesley went clothes’ shopping.  Knowing this might, mysteriously, require several days, I meandered off on my own … and very usefully bought an ancient German army folding shovel of great historical antiquity from Athens’ Flea Market.

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“The only one left!” Well, that’s what the Flea Marketeer assured me!

I ended up, though, espying a clerical vestments shop sitting quietly at the end of an enticingly-shadowed alleyway.  The elderly husband and wife owners were charmingly welcoming and offered me chocolates.  We chatted away about this and that; they gave me another chocolate for the absent Lesley … and then dropped a bombshell!  “If you had been in our shop just 15 minutes ago, you would have met your Prince Charles and Camilla”.  Smiling at my astonishment, they explained that C and C had, out of the blue, popped into their shop while visiting Athens that day!  Imagine if just ten minutes’ earlier:- “Prince Charles, I presume?”!

Sadly, I had to eat Lesley’s chocolate – only because she was shopping so long that the fierce sun was rapidly turning the wrappered sweet in my pocket into a hot chocolate drink.  I’m not sure quite how it happened, but soon afterwards Lesley emerged from the bowels of her shopping expedition; not with yet another garment, but … a small potted cactus!  She never ceases to amaze me.

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Epimenides, the cactus!  A somewhat prickly friendship with Mr. Baggins ….

Athens seemed to us a somewhat religious city.  We sat for hours on metros and buses, and noticed that a good number of citizens – young as well as old – would make the sign of the cross every time the bus passed a church.

Maybe this religiosity of contemporary Athenians prompted our christening of Lesley’s paragon of a cactus: Epimenides.

Epimenides, you see, was a 6th-Century BC Cretan philosopher at a time when Athens experienced a severe drought.  Eventually, after much ineffective sacrificing to their many gods, Epimenides was sent for.  Embarking from his ship and walking to the city, Epimenides was struck by how many altars to the gods there were.  He concluded that there must be an unknown god yet to be revealed to the Athenians; so, instructed the Athenians to let loose a starving flock of sheep on Mars Hill, overlooking the city.  At every place the hungry sheep didn’t graze, but simply laid down on the grass, stonemasons were to build an altar and inscribe the words, Agnosto theo – ‘to an unknown god’.

Epimenides then prayed publicly on Mars Hill: “O thou unknown god … if indeed you feel compassion to forgive and help us … reveal your willingness to respond, I plead … acknowledging our pitiful ignorance of your name”.  The drought ended soon afterwards.

Six centuries on, the Christian apostle Paul was himself a tourist in Athens, waiting for colleagues to arrive. Wandering the city, he too was struck by the altars to many gods.  But when he found the altar with the inscription, Agnosto theo, he also found his famous introduction to share with these religious people the good news of God, the Father of Jesus Christ.

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The text, in Greek, of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, Athens.

Perhaps Epimenides continues to speak 26 centuries’ later to anyone who senses there is a loving Creator God who can apply grace to ignorance and still reach out to anyone who yearns after him.  As we travel homewards from Africa through Europe, I increasingly think that Europe especially needs God’s grace.  Lesley’s cactus provides, maybe, a pointed reminder of this to us 😊.

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At one of the Meteora Monasteries, Greece.

Blog #35, June 2018.  Written from Germany.

Out of Africa!

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Face to face with the Sphinx in Cairo!  [Sphinx is on the left ….]

Still can’t completely believe it.  [And because this is my last Blog from Africa itself, maybe find it in your hearts to forgive me a slightly longer one?!]

Last Blog, we were setting off from our night at the Sudan/Egypt border and to our unforeseen rendezvous with Egyptian law enforcement officers.

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The deserted road stretching away north from the border towards Aswan, southern Egypt.

 

It was all a bit bizarre.  On that Friday (20 April), we drove 209 completely uneventful miles to Aswan and camped at ‘Adam’s Home’ by the Nile.  [Mo is the contact here.  He is a Nubian.  Which, he assured us, is a very important distinction.  Nubians are from a region spread along the Nile, stretching from Khartoum in Sudan to Aswan in Egypt.  Nubia is seat to one of the earliest civilisations of ancient Africa – with a history traced back 4,500 years.  Mo informed us that “we Nubians are the most welcoming and hospitable of all Egyptians”.  Whatever the truth of it, Mo himself was definitely an excellent individual.]

 

 

 

The next day, as we hurtled slowly northwards to Alexandria and our appointment with the boat to Europe for Mr. Baggins, we somehow – quite out of the blue – found ourselves graced with the close company of lots of men in blue!  In the end, no less than ten sets of police escorts (unfailingly polite and smiling, but non-English speaking) accompanied us for the majority of that day’s 388 miles drive to our last night by the Nile.

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The sun setting over the Nile.  Somewhere on the road between Aswan and Cairo.

 

[Sounds like another film title: Last Night on the Nile … 😎]  Several times, as we were handed on like a dizzy baton in the hands of an Olympic police relay team, we found ourselves surrounded by officers deep in Egyptian conversation with each other and engaged in very serious-sounding and meaningful-looking radio calls!  What on earth was going on?  Had we been mistaken for Harry and Meghan making a last romantic dash before the big day?  Easy mistake to make, to be sure.

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Harry and Meghan in Africa. If Harry was a bit more bald …

However, when we ended up driving with police vehicles bracketing us behind and before – with their blues and twos lighting up the evening – we turned to each other in complete befuddlement.

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Lesley managed one covert picture.  You can just see the blue lights!

Had my mother-in-law somehow got involved?? [She is capable of anything.]

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Lesley’s mum; my esteemed mother-in-law. The younger one is our daughter, Laura. Mad as hatters, both of them.

Next morning, after a police guard had been stationed all night by Mr. Baggins, we were met by another armed officer who sign-languaged that he was intending to join us in the Landrover all the way to Alexandria!  Enough was enough – even if my sainted mother-in-law was behind it all.  Politely declining the honour, we signed a quickly scribbled declaration that we didn’t feel the need for a round-the-clock, armed-to-the-teeth escort.  Then, in an attempt to throw off the concerted might of the Egyptian police command, we drove off and darted (like a turtle on Valium) down several side roads and through feral-cat-strewn alleyways where, surely, no British vehicle has ever gone.

I think we succeeded, as we made it to Alexandria 301 miles later with no sign of attention from anyone.

Mind, at one point in the intimidating raceway traffic of Cairo, I clocked in my  mirrors a bright yellow minivan with ominously blacked-out windows weaving crazily between all four lanes of hurtling madness.  I watched with growing interest as this lunatic eventually pulled right up alongside.  Dark window glass rolled down … and a broadly grinning face beamed up at me; a brown arm reached out and handed me a package.  If the police had been observing, we’d have been nicked on the spot for highly suspicious behaviour!  Yellow van-man peeled off with a cheery wave and disappeared into the complete mayhem of the traffic.  I looked down at what was in my hand …

… and knew our Africa safari was now complete.  We could finally head home.  All was well in our world.  The universe settled on its axis.  We had just been handed two Bic Pen-man key rings 😳😄.  I joke not.  Dazedly, I looked up and just managed to catch a last sight of the yellow van before it was swallowed up by three million other lunatic drivers.  Sure enough … big letters on the rear doors proudly proclaimed the meaning of existence on earth: Bic, the pen for life.

 

 

 

 

Thinking about the meaning of life, I can’t help but remember our visit to Karen Blixen’s house in Nairobi two months’ back.  It was she who wrote the famous, original, Out of Africa.  We had wandered with tremendous interest round her house (now a museum) and the beautiful gardens.

 

 

 

We sat and looked out over the magnificent trees of her old estate, past where her coffee factory buildings had been, and saw in the distance the Ngong Hills.  It is in these hills that Denys Finch-Hatton – the English aristocratic big-game hunter and Karen’s lover – is buried.  On 14 May 1931, he crashed and died in his Gypsy Moth biplane on his way back to Nairobi from Mombasa.  He was just 44.  Karen and Denys had made a pact that they both wanted to be buried in the Ngong Hills – one of their favourite picnic places.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills ….

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Photograph in the house of Baroness Karen Blixen.  She loved traditional Somali dress.

Karen herself never made it to a grave in the Ngong hills, but she ensured that Denys’ wish was fulfilled and had him buried there.  In the grief-filled months before she left Africa forever and returned to Denmark, Karen hoisted a cloth banner high enough above the grave so she could see it from her house.  Lions would sometimes bask on the sun-warmed stones of Denys’ grave.  Intrigued, Lesley and I went to find it.  We didn’t meet any sunbathing lions, but did discover a monument erected here by Denys’ brother years later.  Engraved on it are words from Finch-Hatton’s favourite poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast”.

 

 

 

[It was only this week that I read with delight that Finch-Hatton was one of those responsible for more than 5000 square miles of the Serengeti being made into a Game Sanctuary in 1929 😊.]

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Well done, Denys!

 

Maybe the BIC gift from an anonymous Cairo yellow van-man who drove in and out of our lives in the blink of an eye has driven me to maudlin meanderings on the meaning of life?!  Standing at Denys Finch-Hatton’s grave, we had looked back at distant Nairobi.  Karen and Denys wouldn’t recognise that community now – or the place in the bush where they had come for picnics.  There’s only a small sign to his burial place, nailed high to a tree and pointing up an anonymous and easily-missed dirt track.  [So small and easily missed that we drove right past it – twice!]  There are no longer any lions coming to laze in the sunshine on his grave.  There is no Karen.  Even her house is just a museum to her memory.  The coffee plantation is gone and the houses of Nairobi’s present elite are built on what used to be her land.

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The sign on a tree to a lonely grave.  [Sadly, even Denys’ name is misspelled.]

Eighty-seven years after Finch-Hatton’s death, Lesley and I sat together in the sunshine next to his grave in the Ngong Hills in rather poignant reflection for quite some while.  Just the two of us … next to the memorialisation of a man’s short earthly life long turned to lonely dust.

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The grave has recently been hedged around.  Gone are the wide-open views, but one can just about glimpse far-off Nairobi over the high hedge.

Three thousand years ago, the Psalmists also reflected on life: When I consider your heavens and the works of your fingers; what is it about man that you, Lord, are mindful of him? … After all, the days of man are like grass.  They flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone and its place remembers it no more.  But (thank goodness) the loving-kindness of the Lord is forever and forever with those who reverence him.

After all this reflecting on the meaning of life, maybe it is surprising that we eventually made it to Alexandria at all!  We stayed ten days, finalising getting the Landrover into a container to Piraeus port, Athens.  We very gratefully lodged with an old friend, Heather, who we’d also met in Morocco ten months ago.  Full circle 😁.  Thank you for being an excellent hostess, Heather!  And fish and chips in Kendal is definitely a date!!  We also made a new friend: Ibrahim, an Alexandrian who was a huge help during our sojourn in his city.

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Eating cocherie with Heather and Ibrahim. Cocherie is Egyptian street food and Heather’s favourite!  We loved it.

We thoroughly enjoyed Alexandria (20 million population!).  The icing on the cake on the way to the port was stopping by this excellent coffee shop Heather had discovered earlier 😄.

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House Baggins coffee shop!  Would you believe it?!

We caught the train to Cairo and the pyramids and flew to Athens on 5 May.  Mr. Baggins finally arrived by boat and rolled back onto European soil on the 24th.

 

 

 

 

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So, after ten months, we are out of Africa.  It has been a quite indescribable experience.  Wonderful people, landscapes, cultural experiences, different foods, great roads, warmth, laughter, tears, sweat and sand, pesky flies and mosquito bites, new friends and languages, desert, savannah, rainforests, animals, camping, cooking fires, Landrovers and even Toyotas (!) … and lots of listening to each other.  Truly wonderful.  We are hugely grateful.  And very privileged.

And still not a single puncture for Mr. Baggins!!

Our youngest daughter, Laura, flew out to Athens on the 18th. She will now travel across Europe with us. [It wouldn’t surprise me if our families have not got together and deputed her to make sure we don’t lose our way home!]

 

Blog #34.  24 May, 2018.  Athens, Greece.

Egypt: our final African frontier!

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Sunrise just over the border into Egypt!

I can’t quite believe it.

We’ve actually made it to the Mediterranean coast of northern Egypt; arriving in Alexandria on Sunday afternoon, 22 April.

Forty-six weeks to the day since we set off from Fleetwood!

We’ve driven a total of 35,686 miles to finally reach Alexandria – including through twenty-one countries of Africa: north, west, south, east, and north again 😅.

 

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Religiously, I have kept a record of how much diesel we have poured down Mr. Baggins’ throat:  4,133 litres!  And ranging from £0.10 a litre (Sudan) to £1.15 (England).  And diesel is always cheaper than petrol in every country except … yes, the UK!   [I’ve also kept a log, in local currencies, of how much we’ve paid for it all, but haven’t yet converted it to £££.  That will be an interesting total 😳.]

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Diesel for Mr. Baggins.  Not quite so many litres of Coca Cola for me!

Enough about stats.  What about our last African land border and country?

 

 

After the remote beauty of the empty desert road through northern Sudan, we eventually rolled up at the border with Egypt.  We were anticipating a straightforward exit from Sudan and bracing ourselves for a lengthy and convoluted entry into Egypt.  [Britain might have invented paperwork, but evidently Egypt has taken bureaucracy to epidemic proportions!  We would see.]

 

 

German overlanders we’d met in Ethiopia had forewarned us that, in addition to all the normal border requirements, Egypt uniquely requires every foreign-registered vehicle to procure an Egyptian license plate … and every foreign driver to acquire an Egyptian driving license!  It had taken them three days of visits to innumerable offices to procure these two vital items when they had arrived last month into Egypt through the port at Alexandria!!

Three days?!  Maybe Africa was saving for us its top-line bureaucracy to last!

More, we were approaching the border on Thursday afternoon – and we knew that Friday and Saturday is Egypt’s weekend.  So, it was with no small amount of bracing ourselves that we pulled to a stop at the first border gate at 2.00pm, Thursday.

The first thing the Sudan police required was our Travel Permit.  We didn’t have one … as we’d been informed in Khartoum that the government had discontinued this requirement on 18 March.  But had this news filtered along to the ever-polite officers of the border post on the far-flung northern outpost of Sudan?!  You guessed it.  Suffice to say that it took us three patient hours to cajole and persuade our way through all the necessaries.  This was the longest exit we had experienced from any country!

So, at 5.00 on Thursday afternoon, we proceeded from Sudan to the Egyptian side of the border post.

Our Yellow Fever certificates were checked (first time ever!).  We were then informed that Egypt doesn’t accept Sudanese pounds or even the mighty USD at the border!  In an internationally-sensitive agreement, brokered by a sympathetic Yellow-Fever-Certificate-checking-official, I eventually received permission from the Kalashnikov-toting border guards to walk into Egypt (leaving Lesley and Mr. Baggins keeping each other company back in no-man’s land); clutching a small and sweaty wad of dollars in my begrimed fist to change into the elusive Egyptian pound.

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“Right, men, we have a white man wandering around the border ….”

However, the little border post bank’s lone computer had crashed!  Forty-five minutes’ later, it had been rebooted and I had some precious currency.  Back at the first gate, Lesley seemed a bit emotional at seeing me again!  Quite moving, actually, to be so unconditionally loved by someone.

Turned out that she wasnt worried about me; but the hassle she would have to face in driving Mr. Baggins back to the UK by herself!!

Having somehow and precariously pulled my bruised self together again, I squared my shoulders and walked steadfastly into the maelstrom which is Egyptian bureaucracy.  By now, night had fallen like a dark, cloying cloak round my shoulders.

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‘Night-time in Egypt’ Postcard!

It’s probably best all round that I draw another cloak around the events of the next seven hours ….  Suffice to say that we were first required to empty the Landrover onto the tarmac and have no less than five extremely friendly, but even more-extremely thorough, officers go through everything!  They were immensely intrigued by our (cheap) binoculars and (slightly more expensive) satellite tracker.  Lesley artfully weighed-in with how our anxious children were reassured by being able to track our stately progress through Africa!  They ended up delightedly applauding our farsighted sensitivity to our family!

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One officer wasn’t to be diverted, though, and spent considerable amounts of time tapping on aluminium body panels here, wooden fridge platform there, chassis rails hither and goodness knows what else thither.  I reckon he was on a mission to reveal hitherto-undiscovered artefacts from Tutankhamun’s pyramid; all squirrelled away somewhere between my Massai cattle stick, jar of Okavango River sand and Lesley’s shell from South Africa’s Wild Coast!

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Tutankhamun.  Just in case you were wondering.

Having survived that search and hastily shoving everything back (being careful in the process to not inadvertently break Tutankhamun’s necklace that we’d found lying about on the sand next to a Sudanese pyramid), I visited Customs … only to be met by increasingly pained shrugs and glum grimaces.  After two hours of bemused waiting, I was eventually informed that my English Carnet (Mr. Baggins’ Customs passport) was no longer recognised by Egypt!  Another hour of anxious waiting after that bombshell and smiles suddenly broke out.  The British Royal Automobile Club’s version had been invalidated, but my CARS UK Carnet was valid!!  [In the depths of my twisted heart, I did wonder whether this had been a gentle ploy to encourage me to hand over some dollars in desperation …?]

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The Nigeria Page of our Carnet. One of the hardest to acquire!

After finally getting the Carnet and our passports stamped, it was only left for us to secure the aforementioned Egyptian vehicle registration and license document.  This took a mere couple of hours (and only five different offices).

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The precious Egyptian number plate!

So, finally at 1.00am on a warm Friday night, we arrived at the last gate; where, at long last, there beckoned a pitch-black and completely empty desert road into Egypt!

By this time, we were both a bit frazzled; so we drove about four miles, turned into a side road, and pulled off onto the sand to close our eyes until dawn, four hours away.

We stirred as the sun began to warm the eastern horizon.  We were completely alone.  Nothing moved anywhere across the lone and level sands.  Emboldened, I divested myself of my clothing and quite extravagantly, with filtered water from the Acropole (!), had a wonderful bucket bath; washing away the grime and frustrations of eleven hours at our last African land border 😅.

 

 

 

We then rejoined the road and set our faces towards Alexandria.  Little did we know that we would soon receive a police escort … or that I would eventually make the acquaintance of an officer with the Egyptian Secret Service.  [Had my bucket bath been picked up and photographed by satellite?!]

See you next Blog, hopefully … 😅.

 

Blog #33.  Alexandria.  End of April 2018.

 

 

 

Sudan: Where the two Niles Meet

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Standing on the banks where the White and Blue Niles meet.

We were keenly looking forward to travelling through Sudan!  We had heard that it is the safest country in Africa through which to overland, and that the Sudanese are extremely hospitable and welcoming.

So, maybe we were imagining it … but the closer we got to the border with Sudan, the increasing number of uncomplicated smiles and waves we seemed to be receiving.  Was some of the famed Sudanese hospitality infiltrating into the borderlands of the infamous Ethiopian stone-throwing hostility we’d experienced?

We’d also been told that we couldn’t use our Visa card to get cash anywhere in Sudan.  So we had stocked up on Ethiopian Birr to change into Sudanese pounds at the border.  I subsequently spent quite some time in bantering conversation with Daniel (the Ethiopian money-changer) in the courtyard of ‘Condom-Hotel’.  After a while, he lost the battle with himself of keeping his banker’s-face straight and broke into a wide smile; swearing to me his eternal friendship … and we eventually settled on a deal pleasing to both sides!  But who knows the final truth of these things??

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21 Birr bought me 20 Sudanese pounds.  Daniel’s ‘Border Rate’ better than the official rate!

On Sunday morning 15 April, Naomi (the Aussie we’d picked up at the border), Lesley and I climbed into the ever-faithful Mr. Baggins and headed for the heat and sun of Sudan.  The border crossing went smoothly enough … and, sure enough, every Sudanese with whom we had to deal was the soul of welcome friendliness.

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Just a small part of the queue of lorries at the border. But an EXTREMELY orderly queue!

A hundred or so miles into Sudan (with adults and children waving happily and empty-handedly to us!), we dropped Naomi off at the bus station of Al-Qadarif town and went our separate ways – she north-eastwards to Kassala and we north-westwards to Khartoum.  Lesley and I couldn’t help but remark again to each other how singularly brave and indomitable are these lone women who travel Africa by public transport!  God bless and keep you safe, Naomi.

Our first overnight stop in Sudan was at Wad Medani, cheek by jowl with the Blue Nile 😊.  The next day, we made it all the way to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.  We had already agreed to stay at the Acropole Hotel because George the Greek manager had helped us with visa Invitation Letters to the Sudan embassy in Nairobi.

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Tea and cake on the house on arrival at The Acropole, Khartoum!

The Acropole is not the cheapest hotel in Khartoum, but we reckon it must be the best place to stay in the city!  Founded in 1952, it is the oldest hotel in Khartoum and still owned and run by the same Greek family.  George is 72 and has been based at the hotel all his life!  One of his brothers is The Honorary Greek Consul in Khartoum.  [Sounds like another great title for a film!]  George organised everything for us: from the required registration of our visas to filling our water tanks with 60 litres of filtered water.  He even asked his wife to cook us Moussaka 😋.  He also organised an excellent sight-seeing trip around the three parts of the city for us and two great young Englishmen (Charlie and Lloyd) holidaying briefly at the hotel.

The four of us spent eight happy tourist-hours with Omar the Guide: viewing where the two Niles finally meet; visiting the vast camel market; clambering all over Lord Kitchener’s river gunboat; wondering at the exhibits in the National Museum; admiring the bullet-pocked mud ramparts from where Gordon of Khartoum sought to hold off the Mahdi’s forces in the late 1880s; eating kebabs and downing tea overlooking the Nile; taking off our flip flops to enter the Coptic Church ….  We also criss-crossed the Nile(s) several times on bridges built at different times by the British, the Germans, the Italians, and the Chinese.  The German bridge felt solid; the British bridge felt historical; the Italian bridge felt particularly chaotic; and the Chinese bridge felt very shiny and new!

In the Omdurman market, the four of us – the only white people in sight –  happily wandered up and down the crowded streets.  At one point, we seated ourselves at the street-stall of a tea-seller and drank mint tea.  We must have presented a rather odd sight to everyone else crowding past, but only welcoming smiles and happy greetings came our way.  I bought some roasted peanuts from another stall – the best I’ve tasted since Nigeria!  The lady peanut-seller took it completely in her stride; giving off the impression to amused passersby that she sold peanuts to West-African attired white men every normal day of her life.

Midway through the day, Omar’s mobile rang.  It was his wife, who was at the hospital having his eighth baby!!  He seemed remarkably laid back about it all.

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Omar and me commiserating over the difficulties fathers have to brave in childbirth …

Back at the Acropole after a great day, it got even better as Naomi turned up unexpectedly!  We ate an evening meal together before she went off to find the Englishwoman living in Khartoum with whom she was ‘couch-surfing’ that night.  She will be off next to hunt up some scuba diving near Port Sudan.  Amazing.

Sudan was working out great so far.  The only real anxiety was finding diesel for Mr. Baggins.  On the road up, we had seen queues snaking outside dry fuel stations; sometimes as far as the eye could see.  We had enough to get to Khartoum, but not to reach Egypt.  Once again, George came to the rescue; advising where to try, late at night.  We eventually filled up both tanks at our third fuel station after only 30 minutes of queuing 😅.  [I worked it out afterwards: converting from the Birr I’d changed into Sudanese pounds at the border, it came to just over ten English pence a litre!!]  There is a really good feeling when you have full fuel and water tanks and at least a little local currency in your pockets!  We were now ready for an early start the next morning for the two-day journey to the border with Egypt – via some Sudanese pyramids.

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Emptying jerricans of diesel into Mr. Baggins. I also periodically would add injector-cleaning supplement, as fuel is not always very clean!

The pyramids near Karima are well off the beaten tourist track.  When we got to them late in the afternoon, we were amazed to realise there were no tourists, no touts, no trinket-sellers, no anybody.  We could have driven right up to them – even walked on them – and nobody would have paid a blind bit of notice it seems!  In fact, all we could find of anything resembling tourist-stuff was one rather forlorn green sign proclaiming to the sands around it: ‘Pyramids Area’.

Our last night in Sudan was exceedingly peacefully spent a kilometre off the desert road, behind a sand dune hill; about fifty miles from any village or town.  Not a soul about – not even a fly or a mosquito, it was so dry and deserted.  I put up the roof tent while Lesley cooked supper … and we sat on our camp chairs, drinking Earl Grey tea in the warm gloaming of the Nubian Desert, leaning our heads against Mr. Baggins’ in complete and quiet happiness!

Yes, absolutely: Sudan was a great, if brief five-day, experience.  [Next stop, Egypt: our final country in Africa!  Can’t quite believe it.]

Blog #32.  Sudan, April 2018.

Monolithic Ethiopia.

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Westering sun on road to Lalibela

Without question, Ethiopia is physically beautiful.

Mountainously stunning, great food, and a rich history.  And as one emailer wrote to us, the women truly are beautiful!

[You all need to know that I emailed back agreeing wholeheartedly, but adding that, in my eyes, Lesley surpasses them all 😁.]

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In contemplative mood at the monolithic rock-hewn church of St. George

 

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria – c. 100 million.  We drove a total of 1,302 miles through it: from the southern border of Moyale to the north-western border of Metema.  Sadly, because of time, we didn’t make it to the far north (the ancient city of Axum) or to the north-east (Danakil, “the hottest place on earth”).  But we spent two days in Addis Ababa and made sure we also visited the fascinating ‘monolithic rock-hewn churches’ of Lalibela, as well as camping on the shores of Lake Tana (source of the Blue Nile).

Our first night in Ethiopia was at the Roman Catholic compound in Arba Minch.  The road here was great … and varied!

We rolled up to the compound just after dark … to be informed that we had arrived on Easter weekend!  Ethiopia runs on a different time and date pattern to the rest of the world.  Their clocks are 6 hours’ different and their calendar is distinct also – so, we experienced another Easter after our earlier one in Nairobi!

One thing this meant was that we soon discovered that the RC Guesthouse in Arba Minch is right next door to the main Orthodox Church and a large Protestant Church!  From 9.00pm Saturday night to 2.00am Sunday morning, the Orthodox Church turned their exterior loudspeakers to MAXIMUM volume and happily and continuously broadcast their priest’s dirge-like, wailing ‘song’.  Not to be outdone (heaven forbid), the Protestant Church (surely Pentecostal) coaxed even greater decibels from their banks of loudspeakers and broadcast to the unable-to-sleep world a VERY long Easter sermon!  [At one point, I turned over in bed and hollered across to Lesley that the local mosque could only have been green with envy at the sheer volume of sound the Christians were merrily producing.]

I confess we have developed an intense weariness with the propensity of some independent African churches – not just the mosques – of shouting at people (whether they want to hear or not) and, worse, yelling at God.  I totally do not believe that God is deaf.  The Bible itself tells us, for goodness sake, that the Almighty certainly doesn’t need disturbing from his sleep!  So, it beats me why those who loudly claim to speak in his name feel urged to disturb God and everyone else’s sleep at such huge and indiscriminate volume.

Anyway, the next morning we blearily drove north to Addis and stayed at the 90-year old SIM Mission Guesthouse and also visited Clare, an Englishwoman married to an Ethiopian.  Clare teaches at RICE, an Addis school with international educational standards but intentionally accessible to non-elite Ethiopians.

After Addis, we drove 274 miles still further north, through the mountains and passes, to the small town of Lalibela.  Incredibly scenic journey; the last hour driving through a glorious sunset evening.

The next day, we visited the most iconic of the monolithic churches – St. George’s – and then took a tuktuk ride 6km even further up the mountains to the final breathtaking ascent by foot to St. Mary’s monastery, the “oldest church in Ethiopia”.

Our guide was a young man called Memeklya, whom we’d met at his cousin, Marta’s, little roadside coffee shop earlier that day.  Two really great young people.  They invited us to their tiny home later to share a traditional evening meal together.  A perfect end to a fulfilling day.

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Memeklya, Marta and Lesley at Marta’s shop.

By this time, we needed to get to Sudan because of time pressure.  We gave George, a backpacking East Berliner, a lift to Lake Tana in the west of Ethiopia; where we found one of the few campsites in the country.  TimKims was established by a Dutch couple thirteen years ago and is a slice of heaven on earth!  Kim asked whether we had seen many overlanders in our travels … and wasn’t surprised when we replied that we hadn’t.  “We used to get five overlanders every day here,” she told us, “but now we only get about one a month”!!  Testimony to the increasing difficulties of overlanding through northern Africa.

Driving the 238 miles to Lake Tana, we picked up our first stone-throw actual damage to Mr. Baggins ☹️.  One of a bunch of young boys let fly with a stone as we drove through a village.  There was an almighty BANG.  Momentarily, I thought something major had let go mechanically, but Lesley horrifiedly said, “That was a stone, Steve!” Sure enough, I could see the dent on the back door even from my mirror.  Two inches higher and it would have broken the window.

I WASN’T happy!  I couldn’t care less about another dent on Mr. Baggins – but fumed over the attitude that says it’s okay to throw stones at a vehicle just because it is driven by a foreigner.  [We’d met an Australian overlanding cyclist in Lalibela who grimly told us that he has had stones thrown at him many times in Ethiopia – sometimes deliberately aimed at his head!]  I definitely feel a letter coming on to the UK Ethiopian ambassador!

Sadly, we could only time-afford one night at TimKims, but made the most of camping under a huge spreading gum tree overlooking Lake Tana and, with George, ate our evening meal under a clear, warm sky with the stars very bright over our heads.  Medicine for the bruised soul!

By complete contrast, our last night in Ethiopia was spent at a border ‘hotel’.  Noisy and dusty; with condoms in each room!  We met an Australian backpacker here: Naomi had seen Mr. Baggins on the road earlier and got off the bus when she saw him parked at the ‘hotel’!  We gave her a lift the next day into Sudan.

Ethiopia.  Not just stand-alone rock-hewn churches or a stand-alone time and date system  … but also the stand-alone country in Africa in our total experience that throws stones at foreigners.  I’m sorry to say that this consistent unwelcoming, even hostile, attitude from many of the children and young men of the villages we passed through has left us with an abiding bad taste of Ethiopia; so much so that it became our least-favourite country in Africa.

Ethiopia.  Monolithic … in more ways than one.

Blog #31.  Ethiopia, April 2018.

Kenya in Three Parts. III. The Moyale Border.

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This was the truly excellent road running north from Mount Kenya to the border at Moyale with Ethiopia.  If you squint really hard, you will see giraffe crossing the road in front of us.

This was the border where we had been told, three weeks back, that thousands of refugees were fleeing into Kenya from Ethiopia.  So, after securing our final African visa at the Sudan embassy in Nairobi, we set off on the 480-mile journey north-east to Moyale wondering what we would find.

Two years ago, most of this A2 route was “one of the worst roads in East Africa” – two hundred plus miles of horrendously corrugated gravel/dirt viciously shaking both body and vehicle.  Now, we reckon it is probably the best tarred road in all of the eighteen African countries of our experience to date!  Not a pothole in sight, wide, clearly marked, smooth, and hardly any traffic once through Isiolo.  We were averaging 37mph.  Unheard of!

 

The scenery was stunning.  Lesley was taking photographs like Lichfield on speed!  Panoramic vistas of mountains and ranges of hills; volcanic-plug kopjes surrounded by spreading thorn trees; miles of savannah grasses followed by semi-desert.  As well as hundreds of camels, we were taken by delighted surprise at one point to have to slow right down so as to let some giraffe cross the road in front of us.

 

To top it all, after a full service and assorted repairs, Mr. Baggins was rolling along this wonderful road as if we were flying on a magic carpet!  At one point – with euphoria burbling in my soul – I pronounced:  “Lesley, I am very happy indeed!”

Two days after leaving Nairobi, we duly arrived into Moyale.  The Anglican guesthouse was full; as were two others we tried.  Even a doped-up ‘guide’ who commandeered a bodaboda couldn’t find us a guesthouse with room at the inn.  After finally extricating ourselves from this guy’s clutches, we found the only campsite in Moyale.  This is managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service – nothing special, but they wouldn’t budge from a price of 20 USD … each!!  We had paid a total of only 7 USD for a guest room with shower the previous night at the RC Guesthouse in Isiolo; so we politely made our farewells and drove on.  [What a shame, though!  It didn’t look as if anyone had camped there in eons.  Where is the sense in this myopic over-pricing??]

By this time, euphoria was definitely not singing in my soul!!  It was still only 5.00pm, so we decided to try and cross into Ethiopia.

We drove boldly through the impressive border gates … and, don’t ask me how, but promptly found ourselves going the wrong way, ending up completely turned around and facing the way in to Kenya!  One of these days ….

I climbed out to seek help and was politely informed that, although the Kenyan side was still open, the Ethiopian lot had evidently already shut up shop and gone home!  However, “There is a guesthouse here,” the official helpfully told us.  Of course, the only way to get to it after already coming the wrong way once was to go yet another wrong way!  As we U-turned and wandered illegally back like crazy loons, I was tensing for someone to either arrest or shoot us … possibly both.  Thankfully unharmed, we eventually found ourselves at the Guesthouse (only 10 USD each, including breakfast) slap bang on the border – mixing it with UN officials (monitoring refugees?) in their new, top of the range Landcruisers.

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We collapsed into bed early and turned off the light.  Drifting gratefully into sleep, we were rudely wakened by the switching on of a mixture of garage, grunge, and guesthouse hip hop ‘music’.  Very loud and emanating seemingly from right outside our window!  Someone (a UN official?) finally switched it off at 2.00am.  Completely shell-shocked, we turned over … only to hear what must have been an equally stunned, undoubtedly mentally-deranged, cockerel decide to wake the dead – also, seemingly, from right outside our window.  He finally gave up, and we turned over again.  Only for a lone-ranger muezzin to fire up his mosque loud-speaker and Allahu akbarrrr began tolling out across the rooftops.  I lay there thoroughly bemused as this call to prayer seemed pretty early at 3.48am??  Anyway, he must have run out of breath (or batteries) because he went suddenly silent.  We turned over again.  A fellow muezzin at a different mosque must have felt he needed to rescue the dropped baton.  This one, however, sounded like an Arabian Nights version of a Swiss mountain yodeller!  He yodelled away from 4.03 to 4.07am.

By this time, lying rigid in bed, I had arrived at the conclusion that it was not safe to turn over ever again.  Several amazingly uneventful minutes ensued.  I made the mistake of turning over.  The Guesthouse main door banged open and some misguided individual shuffled his sandals loudly across the sand-particled floor tiles to the next door room.  A loud knocking ensued, followed by: “(Fred), 10 minutes.”  Of course, Fred dutifully got up and proceeded to hold a full-volume conversation – through the closed door – with the sandal-shuffler!  I can only assume that these two characters belonged to one of the many large UN Landcruisers parked next to our window, as their vehicle’s electronic locking system caught whatever bug was abounding that night and commenced incessantly and loudly to blip-blip away.  Toyotas.

It was now 4.45 … and I had given up trying to sleep (especially after a donkey with a traumatic case of surely-painful constipation began to express himself at the top of his bray underneath our bedroom window).

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Surely Ethiopia couldn’t be worse …?

By the way, we never saw a single refugee.

Blog #30.  Moyale Border Guesthouse, 6 April 2018.

Kenya, Part Two. Of Planes, Trains (Almost), and Automobiles!

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Planes first 😀.
Ever since growing up in Nigeria, I have loved airplanes – especially the single-engined Cessna 206s.  My dad was a missionary doctor in Nigeria for eighteen years and for the first fifteen of those years, together with my mum, he pioneered a medical work on Lake Chad in the far north-east of the country.  He would make regular 400-mile round trips to the ‘Lonely Lake’ by Landrover along – often virgin – desert/bush tracks.  Once at the Lake, he would take the medically-outfitted boat around the lakeside dispensaries of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Tchad.  In those days, Lake Chad was the size of Wales.  It was proper pioneer missionary work!
And sometimes, dad had to be flown on and off the Lake by a Mission Aviation Fellowship Cessna 206 float plane … and, sometimes, my mum, brother and I were massively privileged to accompany him on such trips.
Landrovers, boats, and float planes in Africa!  Heaven on earth!

So, if God were to introduce reincarnation just for me, I would fall on bended knee before him to be allowed to return to earth as a mission bush pilot in Africa!

Imagine, then, the big smile on my face as we headed to Nairobi to stay with John and Anna Mosby – friends of friends (Rob and Jane Guinney).  John is an airplane mechanic-pilot missionary with AIM-Air, based out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport.  As Chief Engineer, John looks after a fleet of six single-engined planes; three of them Cessna 206s.

Very satisfyingly, John also drives a bright yellow Landrover Defender; aptly known as ‘Colonel Mustard’!

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I was hugely glad to spend a day at the AIM-Air hangar!  Almost-heaven 😇.  I probably made a massive nuisance of myself, but I was happy!  While Lesley stayed behind in the house to sort out unimportant stuff like the washing of clothes and bedding, I pestered the mechanics, wearied the pilots with my incessant questions, and caused a certain amount of stress to the security by wandering around taking innumerable photographs of every plane in sight.  What a great day!

And I was chuffed to bits to learn that the chief pilot is a young lady!  I wasn’t able to pester her as she was flying that day, but I am going to mention her name to our son.  She’s not married yet, you see ….  Neither is Sam.  And we’re in Africa … which believes in arranged marriages ….  Sorted.  [I’ve placed a recent Africa-picture of Sam in the pilots’ Mess Room.  Bound to work.]

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Then Trains (almost).
Mr. Baggins was overdue a full service, plus sorting out a few transmission knocks and a steering wobble.  John knows an excellent Landrover mechanic by the name of Gio; so, Mr. Baggins was off the road for just over a week.  From what I can recall, Gio is an Italian-Kenyan with Sephardic Jewish, Spanish and Swedish blood in him also!  He must have Landrover oil in his veins as well, because Mr. Baggins finally came back from Geo’s workshop driving probably better now than when he first rolled out of the factory thirty-three years ago.  This is Geoff, one of the mechanics.

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Mr. Baggins being off the road meant that we couldn’t drive him to the famous Mombasa on Kenya’s coast.  So, we tried to get the train (which takes just five hours, and is very safe).  Not possible – unless one books one month in advance!  We caught the ‘Coast Bus’ instead.  Friends who lived in Nairobi for three years said we were either very brave or completely mad!

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We returned on the day bus, but caught the overnight bus down.  It meant we couldn’t actually see certain death hurtling towards us around every corner and along every straight.  Maybe doubly fortunate we were unsighted, because the heavens opened for a couple of hours and I couldn’t help but notice that the bus windscreen wipers were not working!  Such a small inconvenience didn’t seem to slow the driver down any as we still made it to Mombasa in a mere ten hours.  On the way back, at one juncture, I counted nine lorries that our bus racing-driver overtook in one go (round several corners and over at least one brow of a hill)! Brave or mad??  The driver, I mean.

Finally, Automobiles.
As well as the bus experience-of-a-lifetime, we loved the tuk tuks in Mombasa!  A tad more expensive (but safer) than matatus and cheaper than taxis, yet what a great way to travel around Mombasa.  I want to get one in the UK; I think they’re brilliant.

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We tuk tuk’ed to Mombasa’s Old Town and were adopted by Ahmed, who guided us around.  Worth every shilling, he was!  At one point, he took us into the fish market and pointed out the boats just arrived-in from as far away as India.  We watched as bearers walked the plank carrying plastic containers of cooking oil from India.  The whole experience – including traditional chai (tea) – was excellent.

We caught another tuk tuk that evening to a small Lebanese street cafe, where we ate houmous, tabbouleh, falafel and pitta bread in celebration of Lesley’s birthday.  [Did I already mention somewhere that she is now 55?]

The next day, we caught yet another tuk tuk to the beach, north of Mombasa.  We walked hand in hand (due to Lesley’s vast age) along the water’s edge with rolled-up trouser legs, feeling incredibly fortunate to be doing all this stuff.

 

We met a tiny German lady (Trudie) standing on the beach in her equally tiny bikini!  She must have been in her late 70s, if not older.  Tiny and brown and wrinkled as a nut.  She told us that she’s been coming on holiday to that beach every year for thirty years.  She used to come with her boyfriend.  He’s dead now, but she keeps coming back – “This place is medicine for my soul,” she said.  Trudie also informed us that the water here is a steady 35 degrees.  Wow; just like Fleetwood then!

I didn’t feel that we should take her photograph.  It didn’t seem right somehow 😇.

We thoroughly enjoyed our three days in Mombasa.  However, I must have eaten something not good because all the way back on the bus (11 hours) I had to pray peace to my roiling stomach.  Lesley got it worse the next day and basically had to camp next to the bathroom for 24 hours! [For some reason, she wouldn’t let me take a picture of that experience either.]

So, there we go: planes, almost-trains, buses and tuk tuks.  Great experiences all, but I was looking forward to getting Mr. Baggins back and turning our three faces northwards again.

One final word.  John, Anna, and Wesley Mosby: thank you from the bottom of our hearts for putting us up and putting up with us!  We came to Nairobi as friends of your friends.  I like to believe we leave Nairobi simply as friends.  God thoroughly bless and keep you (and not forgetting Colonel Mustard!).

 

Blog # 29. Nairobi, March/April 2018.

 

 

 

Three Weeks in Kenya; in Three Parts. I. “Home of Champions”.

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We arrived into Kenya three weeks ago through the very quiet border of Suam; having driven for two days round the northern and eastern shoulders of the, fortunately-extinct, volcano of Mount Elgon (fourth-highest East African mountain).  On the second day, we took seven hours to drive all of 56 miles of (very scenic) dirt mountain roads – an average of 8mph all day!  Slow, even for us.

 

 

However, the Uganda/Kenya border experience at Suam is, I reckon, our best one yet!  We camped overnight at the Forestry Commission compound which literally borders the border.  Really peaceful place.

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The next morning, we drove the few hundred yards to the extremely quiet crossing (changing Ugandan shillings for Kenyan ones in no-man’s land).  The Ugandan side was quick, polite, efficient – music to any overlander’s ears.  The Kenyan side was particularly friendly, welcoming, human, good-humoured … as well as being quick and efficient!  Wow.  The Customs’ team even offered us tea to help take the chill off the damp morning 😀.   And when they heard we were eventually heading for Ethiopia, they invited us to watch their television as it was showing newsfeeds of the developing Ethiopian refugee situation at Kenya’s northern border.  Hmmm.  Isaac, the Customs main man, then enquired whether we were Christians?  Yes, I replied.  Whereupon he proceeded to quote to us Psalm 20.7, Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but I will trust in the name of the Lord our God.  So, not only excellent and humane border formalities, but personalised spiritual encouragement as well!  Kenya, here we come.

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The high borderlands of Kenya are beautiful and Mount Elgon encompasses the largest surface area of any extinct volcano in the world.  The frequent panoramic views as we wended our way in and out of the folds of the road are, we reckon, some of the most spectacular we’ve seen.  And the back roads are sooo much quieter than the lorry and matatu-packed main route from Kampala to Nairobi!

 

 

Our first night in Kenya was spent at “Barnleys”, c.15 miles north of Kitali.  The campsite would probably be better described as the Lower Lawns of the main house (itself very British Kenya colonial style)!  Saw our first colobus monkey here.  Looked like a long-haired skunk at first startled glance.

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The next day, we headed down more back roads further into western Kenya, home of Kenya’s Luo people amongst others.  [The minister of Fleetwood Baptist church – a good friend – is Luo … as is half of Barack Obama!]

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Towards the end of a fascinating and scenic drive we found ourselves, high up in cloud and mist, trundling through the town of Iten, “Home of Champions”.  We had already seen numbers of long-legged runners passing Mr. Baggins (yes, passing us!) before realising we were in Kenya’s famous high-altitude athletics training camp.  Kenya produces some of the world’s best middle and long-distance runners; as the fastest 4×4 tortoise on the road, Mr. Baggins felt right at home (unlike his driver).

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We woke the next morning to the rising sun lighting up a tremendous view from our rooftent – one which swept down from the highlands and right across the magnificent Rift Valley!  Later that same day, we crossed the Equator again – this time going south!

 

 

By contrast, our last night before Nairobi was spent camping on the shores of Lake Naivasha.  One hour short of the lake, we drove through torrential rain – not seen rain like it in our trip to date!  It didn’t, however, seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the matatus, buses and other assorted lunatic drivers from overtaking the long continuous lines of lorries (plus one Landrover) at the craziest and most dangerous of places!  Mind, the Kenyan lady-manager at the campsite thought we were crazy for wanting to camp “in THIS rain?”!!

 

Naivasha is an interesting place.  This area of Kenya is one of the first settled by whites and a stamping ground of the Happy Valley set of decadent white settlers in the 1930s (of White Mischief infamy).  However, I was fascinated to learn that Lake Naivasha was Nairobi’s first international airport!  Between 1937 and 1950, BOAC (now British Airways) landed flying boats onto the lake after a four-day journey from Southampton, England.  How’s about that?!

We finally arrived into Nairobi ourselves on Sunday, 18 March – 6,701 miles up the road from Cape Town … and 287 days and 31,695 miles driven since leaving Fleetwood last year.  No flying boat and 4 days us!

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P&O very thoughtfully emailed us; which we, coincidentally, read on Lesley’s birthday while in Kenya.  “Dear Mr Carling (it read), Its great to be organised and to plan ahead, but there’s also a thrill in the unknown, the unplanned, the what next?  When was the last time, Mr Carling, you set off on an adventure, forgoing the satnav to see where the winding roads took you?  When was the last time, Mr Carling, you got lost en route, stumbling into a whole new part of town you’d never seen before?”

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I can’t help but reflect that P&O’s email arrived on Lesley’s birthday.  How apposite, as she is the one wholly responsible for our stumbling into parts of towns, villages and landscapes no Englishman heretofore has ever ventured?!?  [Photo above: “I think the road we should be on is over there, Steve ….  Sorry.”]

For those who are curious, Lesley has now reached the dizzying, if somewhat sobering, heights of 55 😳.

NB.  No connection to Lesley of course, but I read the other day that there are over 100,000 different species of insect in Africa ….

Blog #28.  Kenya, 27 March 2018.

Old Father Nile.

 

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The storied River Nile: the longest river in the world, at four thousand miles from Ugandan source to Egyptian mouth.  And that’s just the White Nile.  The Blue Nile (springing from Ethiopia) is long in itself; even before it merges with its White sister at Khartoum in Sudan.

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“Old Father Nile” has excited the fevered imaginations of explorers for hundreds of years, even to the present day.  It was maybe a particular obsession to adventurers during the reign of Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century.  Before David Livingstone (a Scot), the English explorer John Speke was the first known European to clap eyes on Lake Victoria (in 1858).  Some years later, Speke undertook a second expedition to Lake Victoria to search for the source of the Nile.  On the 28th of July 1862, Speke stood entranced at the northern shore of the Lake.  He later wrote: “Most beautiful was the scene, nothing could surpass it!  It was the very perfection of the kind of effect aimed at in a highly-kept park; with a magnificent stream from 600 to 700 yards wide …. The expedition had now performed its functions; old Father Nile without any doubt rises in the Victoria Nyanza.”

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Thirteen years later (1875), Henry Morton Stanley (who had Welsh origins!) circumnavigated Lake Victoria, confirming that here indeed was the Nile’s source.

Standing by all this journeying water, I discover an unworthy thought bubbling to the surface: the Scots, Welsh and English are here … but where are the Irish in all this flurry of glorious Nile exploration?!  Mind you, thinking about it, Lesley is the most up to date British explorer of the Nile’s source … and Lesley’s mum’s ancestors are Irish!  Phew!  [My esteemed mother-in-law insists her Irish ancestors were “horse traders”.  I’ve always wondered whether this is strictly true ….]

Be that as it may; with what I can only conclude was a fine disdain for whatever other name it might already have, the gallant Speke (re)named the Lake after his faraway British Queen.

So, what is it about we British?  Camping next to the Nile just north of Lake Victoria, I’ve discovered from Alan Whelan’s excellent, Empire Road, that the Lake was already clearly identified on a map drawn up as far back as the 1160s by the North African cartographer, Muhammad Al Idrisi.  Evidently, Al Idrisi’s map of 850 years ago already suggests that Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile.  We’ve taken our jolly time in catching up – and then only to have the cheek to claim that we’ve discovered and christened it!

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Jinja is evidently the second-largest town in Uganda.  It sits on the shores/banks of both Lake Victoria and the Nile.  After spending two nights in Kampala, Lesley and I decided to follow in the steps of our illustrious countrymen and drove Mr. Baggins through the crazy streets of Uganda’s capital into Jinja to discover the Nile’s source for ourselves.

A brief diversion into driving conditions in Kampala.

We’d heard that Kampala’s traffic is horrendous, and it is an hair-raising experience (but not as bad as Dakar!).  Boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) are everywhere in Uganda – many more than the mutatus (minibus taxis).  The mutatus are bad enough: first cutting you up, then suddenly stopping right in front of you or swerving maniacally across your path – and all with an utter disregard for any other road-users (even battered red Landrovers with a mud-splattered bullbar).  They also all sport different slogans: Manchester City (see?  Maniacs!) or BeyoncéJesus saves or Inshallah.  But the boda bodas are complete nutters.  They buzz and whine from every direction like rabid, demented tsetse flies.  [And Lesley and I have discovered that we hate tsetse flies!  These flies are a diabolical combination of the worst of their species and the most malicious of mosquitoes – and bigger than a horsefly.  If one is unfortunate enough to drive through a tsetse belt, it will be to discover that they fly at staggering speeds alongside your vehicle; biding their time with evil intent to swoop in through a window should one be foolish enough to open it!  And they are almighty hard to kill; having to be thoroughly mashed to a bloody pulp against a hard surface!]  The boda boda tsetse are particularly rampant in Kampala, and their paying passengers take their lives in their hands every time they sit on their pillions.  I was informed yesterday that there is a whole wing of Kampala main hospital that is completely dedicated to boda boda accident-injuries … and that, every day in Kampala, six boda boda pilots/passengers are killed.

Thankfully, Jinja’s traffic is much calmer and we soon found ourselves paying the equivalent of £10 for the privilege of briefly leaving Mr. Baggins on a dirt car park in the company of lesser vehicles of indeterminate make (which seem to only end up being converted to more appropriate uses) …

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We politely declined the repeated offers of guides to lead us down some steps and through a narrow defile bordered by wooden shacks cluttered with tourist souvenirs … and finally to the source of the Nile itself.  Mind, we had to circumnavigate a rather tired-looking and unwashed restaurant and its car park and walk through a very inconspicuous and rusted gate to a small concrete buttress before we could actually see the famed river.

It was all rather anti-climatic and a little sad.  Not for a moment do we blame curio-sellers from taking advantage of this storied place to wearily try and snare visitors into buying carvings of elephants or cloth paintings of faraway Kilimanjaro.  Or for entrepreneurs building tourist cafes and bars on the banks of the Nile as it begins its 4,000 mile safari northwards.  But somewhat tawdry-feeling tourist shops and bars wasn’t why we had bravely adventured in the steps of our explorer-forbears!!

However, not all was completely lost as we had finally discovered the Nile for ourselves … so I’ve decided, in grand British colonial style, to name our discovery after my esteemed mum.  Let it therefore be widely-known that, henceforward, the river is renamed the River Gwenyth.  [Photos below taken on the occasion of my mother’s 85th birthday: Nigeria, 19 September 2017 😀.]

 

Our third night camping by the River Nile, and we pulled into a site which was good and quiet.  Somewhat to our horror, though, two hours later and the place began filling up with a veritable flow of vehicles.  We’d not seen so many white people swirling together in one place since Cape Town!  Turned out they were local expatriates:- on Monday nights, the camp bar offers “two burgers for the price of one!”  Really!  I’m pretty sure that neither Speke nor Livingstone had to contend either with hordes of tourists buying nicknacks or local expatriates eating cut-price bar burgers when they discovered the source of the longest river in the world ….

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Thank goodness, then, for our relieved discovery of a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi; also at the source of the Nile!  Gandhi spent twenty years in South Africa opposing discriminatory legislation against fellow-Indians, and some of the great man’s ashes were scattered at this spot.  [I have always admired Gandhi … he said some brilliant things!  One of my favourites: “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind”.]

 

Evidently, it takes three months for water to flow down the Nile from Lake Victoria to Cairo in Egypt.  I find myself fascinated by the thought that, maybe just maybe, some of Gandhi’s ashes travelled four thousand long and wandering Nile-miles to Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea!

Of course, there are two Niles in Africa.  This White Nile eventually merges with its Blue Nile sister in Khartoum, Sudan.  The Blue Nile has its own source in Ethiopia.  Somehow, it brings me a deal of satisfaction to think that Lesley and I hope to wander with Mr. Baggins through both Ethiopia and Khartoum on our ongoing meandering journey home!

The world still remembers Uganda’s president of the 1970s, Idi Amin.  [Somewhat bizarrely, Amin had a thing about Scotland!]  Amnesty International estimates that half a million people – Ugandans and expatriates – were killed during Amin’s 9-year short presidency.  Many of their bodies ended up in, and floating down, the Nile.

Not just Gandhi’s ashes, then, but also dead bodies, tired tourist paraphernalia and half-eaten cut-price burgers all washed down the Nile.  Such is the flotsam of humanity.  From the truly great to the depressingly tawdry … and, in between, inhumanity-to-fellow-humans.

Even as it leaves Lake Victoria, the Nile is a surprisingly wide and large river.  From where we are camped, seemingly suspended on the banks above the river, the Nile tumbles with white water over some rapids.  We watched rafts (filled with whites) paddling past and finally disappearing over the edge away from us.  Hopefully, they will be able to stop their headlong rush before they reach Cairo ….

By the way, while camping at the Backpackers’ Camp in Kampala, I learned that Mzungu originally means ‘someone who wanders without purpose’ (!), and came to be applied to all white people in Eastern Africa (whether entrepreneurs, missionaries, colonial officials, or travellers).  One can only assume that east Africans saw all white people as nothing more than aimless wanderers who headed off in random directions, driven only by spontaneity and primal instinct, and losing any sense of time and place in the process.  Well, that puts us squarely in our place!

 

Some highlights of Uganda?  Spending time with (Ugandan and Kenyan) friends, Kirabo and Mary; meeting Liza (from Italy) and Jeremiah (from USA); treating Lesley to an (Indian) meal for Mothering Sunday (no need for Gandhi’s ashes to surface in indignation as I love Indians!); driving 7 hours to cover 56 miles (that’s an average of 8mph for 7 hours 🤗) around stunning dirt mountain roads heading for the border with Kenya … and staying with (honorary Ugandans!) Spud and Rachel and their “ankle-biters”, Josie and Pippa, in Lilongwe, Malawi.

In a few weeks’ time hopefully, we will have tracked some of the Nile from source to mouth: from Uganda through Ethiopia, Sudan and finally Egypt.  Not too sure at this point exactly which roads we will end up following, but one thing is for sure – it will take us much more than a mere 4,000 miles to get to Cairo!  The longest river in the world may meander, but we mightily wander 😊.

 

 

Blog #27, Written in Uganda, March 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blog by Sam Carling. “To the Serengeti and Beyond.”

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I made the brave choice to join my parents again on their African ‘holiday’, after visiting them in Morocco, July last year. This time the plan was to fly out to Lilongwe/Malawi, travel through Tanzania and, nearly three weeks later, fly back to the UK from Entebbe/Uganda.

So, I began at Heathrow; arriving via the Tube. I’ve travelled alone a few times now and the best way to keep entertained, I find, is to people-watch. This time I enjoyed observing a Chinese couple immediately in front of me going through the airport scanners. They were still high on their trip around London. Very innocently, they put their large bag through the scanner. Much to their surprise, their bag was isolated and the security guard ended up pulling out two very large swords – both over 2 feet long! Security struggled to explain to them that two sharp swords were, actually, not allowed as carry-on luggage on a plane. I was amazed that the Chinese couple seemed very surprised with this! This was a great start to joining my parents!

I flew Ethiopian Airlines; stopping at Addis Ababa for a few hours – which was an experience in itself!

I finally arrived into Malawi after many questions answered and forms filled out for a visa. I was greeted by my smiling parents, who I assume were extremely relieved to have someone else to talk to (more so my mother) and another captive audience for their stories (more so my father).

We camped the first night at Lake Malawi, at a great site on a sandy beach. We followed the Lake most of the way through Malawi; which has over 900 different species of fish – mainly called cichlid, and only found in Lake Malawi. This is actually where a lot of our tropical fish in UK pet shops come from. But, in my opinion, there are zero fish left in the Lake, as I didn’t manage to catch anything with my fly rod!!

Driving through Africa makes you appreciate some aspects of living in England. For example, on a daily basis we would be amazed how that car/bike/lorry/bus didn’t have a huge accident. One of our closest moments was when a very large bus, filled to the brim inside and outside, hurtled down a hill towards us. Somehow (we don’t know how), the driver managed to get all 10 wheels smoking round a corner while he held on to a 40-seater bus huge drift towards us! As the driver careered past Mr Baggins, he smiled widely and put his thumb up at the three very white-faced white people fearing for their lives inside. I think we are only alive due to my parents’ relationship with God; glad I wasn’t alone!

Still in Malawi, we came away from the lakeside for a night and drove up a 2km hill on a very rough dirt road to a small town called Livingstonia.

There is a good story behind this place. Eighty or so years ago, a group of Scottish missionaries arrived at the Lake. However, due to malaria killing some of them, they decided to move their base to the top of the hill, away from the mosquitoes. Sometime afterwards, as Malawi was struggling towards independence, some groups of people were out to kill the British, and the missionaries were under threat. The British authorities sent a helicopter to fly over their Mission base and dropped a message asking if they wanted to be evacuated. The helicopter would fly over again the next day to read their answer. If the missionaries wanted rescuing, then they should whitewash stones spelling out the Roman numeral ‘I’ … or a ‘V’ if they didn’t want rescuing. The missionaries held a meeting that night and all agreed that they would stay and show, by doing so, that black and white COULD live together in peace. When the helicopter flew over the following morning, it read a huge message spelled out with whitewashed stones: ‘V. Eph.2.14’. [The stones are there to this day. We saw them – now cemented into place.] The missionaries on the hill continued working there unharmed, and the story even made it to the headlines of our British newspapers at the time. Of course, my dad took the opportunity to preach at great length to me about it all!

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Four hours were required to cross the border into Tanzania. While I was in the passport queue, I looked outside to find about six Africans (who happened to be the not-so-legal money changers) surrounding dad; all listening intently. Turns out they found out he was a church pastor; so they all started quizzing him.  They seemed to listen a lot more than me – he even preaches to me from the next door loo/shower!

 

The border was longer than usual, due to dad having to buy a COMESA (vehicle insurance for all the remaining African countries of their journey). He decided to get this all-in-one document as, unlike any other place in Africa in their experience, Malawi police check points ask to see the Insurance … and my parents (for once!) didn’t have it. Each time this happened, Dad would start to overload the police with every other piece of document while ‘looking’ for the Insurance. At the same time, my mother would smile, flutter her eyelids, and offer the police mints! It seemed to work, but they were determined to get Insurance. My parents, knowing Africa well at this point, know a price can be haggled. The Insurance was offered to Dad and me in the office for $130. Dad had his allowance from Mum (the boss): “$80; no more!”  He bargained as best he could, but couldn’t get it lower than $95.  I sheepishly went back to my mother to ask for more money – who, by this time, was growing very impatient; after waiting four hours in the hot Landrover, watching her husband unnecessarily speaking/greeting/flirting/aimlessly chatting to every official or passer-by he met! Mum decided to take matters into her own hands. She marched to the office and left me at the Landrover. She returned a few short minutes later … with the Insurance for $80!!

Tanzania has amazing scenery; including plains of long grass with thorn trees, as far as you can see.

It’s also full of villages with children who wave with huge smiles; while others immediately stop what they’re doing, drop their jaws and be mesmerised at the Landrover and three white people in it. We tended to drive the less-travelled routes and some would call out mzungu (white person). Annoyingly, Tanzania is home to huge speed bumps unnecessarily placed everywhere. This meant constantly slowing all the way down to crawl over them in first gear and then beginning the long process of easing Mr Baggins up to top gear … only to then start painfully slowing down for another huge speed hump!

We visited the Serengeti in Tanzania. It is an unbelievable experience. My parents say it is their favourite place in Africa to date. The scenery is breathtaking!

We took a wrong turn (not unusual) as soon as we entered and, willy nilly, got out of the Landrover to argue over the map – until we saw two huge lionesses less than a 100 feet away, sunbathing. We were very careful from then on! During our 24hrs there, we saw lions/elephants/giraffe/leopards/baboons/zebras/hippos/water buffalo/wildebeest, etc. You can imagine, then, why I was not happy when we turned up at our campsite in the centre of the Serengeti and there wasn’t a single game fence in sight! My parents were blissfully at peace in their rooftent, but I spent a nervous night in my ground tent; constantly disturbed by the very nearby barking of hyena and the occasional roar of a lion!!

 

Finally, Uganda. I only spent three days here, following Lake Victoria (named after Queen Victoria). It is the largest tropical lake in the world, and is shared by three countries. Winston Churchill once described Uganda as the “pearl of Africa”. From what little I’ve seen, it is a busy place with mostly very friendly people and more lunatic drivers than ever. [We had a brief scare two hours short of Entebbe. On a back dirt road, there was a sudden loud clattering noise from under the Landrover! I thought a propshaft had gone. I was already wondering how I would get two very heavy suitcases (mostly filled with my parents’ surplus stuff) onto a taxi motorbike to the airport. Fortunately, it was only the Highlift jack coming loose from one of its bolts. Very relieved, we re-threaded the bolt and set off again. Dad was very proud that he has finally used the tiny vice he fixed to his bumper in England. Very sad.]

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I will leave my parents after 2000 miles with them. They will spend another week or so in Uganda, before heading to Kenya.

I’m sure they’ll manage without me. People may wonder – after thirty years of marriage and now spending 24/7 together in a confined space – that they must run out of things to talk about. They haven’t. They just tend to not listen in the first place or simply forget what the other said; so each day is a fresh start for them … two gold fish in a large African fish bowl, but loving life!!
God bless ’em.  😎

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Blog #26, Entebbe, Uganda. 7 March 2018. Sam Carling.